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C U L I N A 1 



Chopsticks have become a quintessential part of the Chinese, Japanese, 
Korean and Vietnamese culinary experience across the globe, with more 
than one fifth of the world’s population using them daily to eat. In this 
vibrant, highly original account of the history of chopsticks, Q. Edward 
Wang charts their evolution from a simple eating implement in ancient 
times to their status as a much more complex, cultural symbol today. 
Opening in the Neolithic Age, at the first recorded use of chopsticks, 
the book surveys their use through Chinese history, before exploring 
their transmission in the fifth century to other parts of Asia, including 
Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Mongolia. Calling upon a striking selection 
of artwork, the author illustrates how chopstick use has influenced Asian 
cuisine, and how, in turn, the cuisine continues to influence chopstick 
use, both in Asia and across the globe. 

Q. Edward Wang is Professor of History and Co-ordinator of Asian 
Studies at Rowan University and Changjiang Professor of History at 
Peking University, China. 








University Printing House, Cambridge cb2 8bs, United Kingdom 

Cambridge University Press is part of the University of Cambridge. 

It furthers the University’s mission by disseminating knowledge in the pursuit of 
education, learning and research at the highest international levels of excellence. 

Information on this title: 
© Q. Edward Wang 2015 

This publication is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception 
and to the provisions of relevant collective licensing agreements, 
no reproduction of any part may take place without the written 
permission of Cambridge University Press. 

First published 2015 

Printed in the United States of America by Sheridan Books, Inc. 

A catalog record for this publication is available from the British Library 

Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication data 
Wang, Q. Edward, 1958- 

Chopsticks : a cultural and culinary history / Q. Edward Wang, 
pages cm 

ISBN 978-1-107-02396-3 (hardback) 

I. Chopsticks. I. Title. 

GT2949.W36 2014 


ISBN 978-1-107-02396-3 Hardback 

Cambridge University Press has no responsibility for the persistence or accuracy of 
URLS for external or third-party internet websites referred to in this publication, 
and does not guarantee that any content on such websites is, or will remain, 
accurate or appropriate. 

To my mother who taught me to use chopsticks 
in China and for my son who is using them in the 
US, as the tradition lives on from past to present, 
China and beyond. 


Acknowledgments page ix 

List of plates xiii 

Timeline xvii 

Map of East Asia xix 

I Introduction i 

2. Why chopsticks? Their origin and original function i6 

3 Dish, rice or noodle? The changing use of chopsticks 41 

4 Forming a chopsticks cultural sphere: Vietnam, Japan, Korea 

and beyond 67 

5 Using chopsticks: customs, manners and etiquette 93 

6 A pair inseparable: chopsticks as gift, metaphor and symbol 120 

7 “Bridging” food cultures in the world 144 

Conclusion 166 

Glossary 17 1 

Bibliography 176 

Index 185 



Researching and writing this book has been a pleasant experience 
for me. I also would like to express, with pleasure, my gratitude to the 
people who helped me in the process. I do not exactly remember when 
the idea of writing a book about the history of chopsticks first came to 
me. But I do remember that at the very early stage when I checked several 
major library catalogs online, trying to look for any book or article on 
the subject, I was quite surprised that essentially none had been written 
in English, save for a few children’s books. This finding spurred me to 
take on the task. At the same time, I also realized that I would have less to 
draw on from existing scholarship. Fortunately, I received a prestigious 
fellowship from the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) at Princeton 
in 2010, to work on a different (yet related) subject. With the kind 
agreement and encouragement of Nicola Di Cosmo, professor of Asian 
history at the IAS, I was able to pursue the initial research on this subject 
instead. The excellent research facility and friendly and capable staff 
at the IAS facilitated my work. The Gest Library at the neighboring 
Princeton University also offered me important access to many useful 
sources. Toward the end of my tenure at the IAS, I gave my first pres- 
entation on the research. I am grateful to Professor Di Cosmo and my 
fellow IAS members for their knowledge, help and comments, especially 
Daniel Botsman, Fa-ti Fan, Marie Favereau-Doumenjou, Sarah Fraser, 
Jinah Kim and Don Wyatt. During that period, I also sought advice and 
suggestions from Professors Ying-shih Yu, Benjamin Elman and Susan 
Naquin at Princeton University and Professors Paul Goldin, Xiaojue 
Wang and Si-yen Fei at the University of Pennsylvania. In the following 
academic year, while teaching as a visiting professor at the University of 



Pennsylvania, I gave a presentation, entitled “Chopsticks: ‘Bridging’ 
Cultures in Asia.” 

I also presented my research for the book at Brandeis University and 
Rowan University (my home institution) in the US, and at Fudan University, 
Peking University, the Institute of Modern History, the Chinese Academy of 
Social Sciences and the National Library of Taiwan in Asia. Professor Aida 
Y. Wong, an art historian of China and Japan, arranged my talk at Brandeis 
University. A staunch supporter of the project from the beginning, Aida 
loaned me books and helped me in finding illustrations for the book. My 
talk at Fudan University in Shanghai was arranged by Professor Ge 
Zhaoguang, then the director of the Advanced Research Institute for the 
Humanities, and chaired by Professor Zhang Qing, head of the History 
Department at Fudan. Zhao Xiaoyang and her colleagues at the Institute 
of Modern History invited me to talk at the Chinese Academy of Social 
Sciences. Presided over by Huang Ko-wu, director of the Institute of 
Modern History, Academia Sinica, my presentation at the National 
Library of Taiwan was the first lecture of the series “Center for Chinese 
Studies Scholars Worldwide,” introduced by Keng Li-ch’un, Jane Liau and 
the staff at the Center for Chinese Studies at the Library. Here I would like to 
express my deep appreciation for all the above invitations, which were a 
major encouragement for me in writing the book. I am also grateful to the 
audiences for their enthusiasm and questions, which helped me to explore 
more aspects of the history and culture of chopsticks. 

I conducted the bulk of my research at Peking University where, since 
2007 , 1 have taught in summers and winters as Changjiang Professor in 
its History Department. As China’s leading university, Peking University 
has a library which provided me with excellent access not only to its huge 
source collections but also to several key databases, including Zhongguo 
jiben gujiku and Hanji dianzi wenxian ziliaoku. When I gave my talk 
on chopsticks culture on the campus in June 2013, I received useful 
information and interesting queries from the audience. I would like 
to thank the faculty and students at Peking University for their support 
and assistance; especially Professors Li Longguo, Liu Qunyi, Luo Xin, 
Rong Xinjiang, Wang Xinsheng, Wang Yuanzhou and Zhu Xiaoyuan. 
Graduate students at Peking University, such as Zong Yu and Li Leibo, 
also provided help for my research. 

In completing the book, I owe my greatest gratitude to the History 
Department at Rowan University. Before submitting my prospectus to 
Cambridge University Press, I first presented it in the Department and 
received warm encouragement and valuable suggestions from all my 



colleagues. Corinne Blake, James Heinzen, Scott Morschauser and Joy 
Wiltenburg kindly proofread several of the chapters and offered useful 
suggestions for improving the prose. Rowan colleagues in other depart- 
ments also helped my work. Yuhui Li, a native of Northwest China, taught 
me a good deal about the dietary traditions and practices of the region, 
as did Hieu Heyuen, who answered my questions about the dining customs 
in Vietnam. Tomoyo Fukumori provided useful firsthand information 
regarding the eating etiquette in Japanese society. She also helped me 
gain a better understanding of the Japanese texts for my research. Her 
assistance, therefore, was much beyond her duty as a student worker, for 
which I am very grateful. At various stages, my writing of and research for 
the book received encouragement from Bill Carrigan, our current chair in 
the Department, and Cindy Vitto, dean of the College of Humanities and 
Social Sciences at Rowan. 

For my research, I visited several museums and private collections, and 
interviewed food scholars in Asia, such as the special chopsticks collections 
at the Lushun Museum in Lushun, the Sanxia Museum in Chongqing, 
the Yangzhou Museum in Yangzhou, the Shanghai Chopsticks Private 
Collection in Shanghai, China, the National Folk Museum of Korea in 
Seoul, South Korea, the Museum of Chopsticks Culture in Kyoto, the 
Tokyo National Museum and the Edo-Tokyo Museum in Japan. I am 
indebted to the following individuals for those visits, as well as to the 
museums, which helped provide useful images for illustrating the book and 
enhancing my knowledge of chopsticks use: Ai Zhike, Chen Yunqian, Cui 
Jian, Han Junshu, Li Yujie, Liu Junyong, Liu Li, Liu Shilong, Luo Lin, 
Ouyang Zhesheng, Park Mihee, Wang Nan, Wang Rong, Xu Yue, Yu 
Xiaohang, Zeng Xuewen, Zhao Yi, Zhao Yifeng and Zhou Yiping. In 
particular, I would like to thank Mr. Lan Xiang for meeting and talking 
with me in June 201 3 . A chopsticks collector of many decades and owner 
of the Shanghai Chopsticks Private Collection, Lan is a prolific author on 
chopsticks culture and history. It was a pleasure to meet him and I obtained 
his permission for using some of the photos I took of his collection. Liu 
Jianhui, professor at the International Center for Japanese Studies in 
Kyoto, kindly accompanied me on my visit to the Museum of Chopsticks 
Culture in Kyoto in July 2013. Though the Museum was closed, we 
managed to find its owner Mr. Izu, with whom I had a brief conversation. 
Our subsequent visit to the Chopsticks Shop, Ichihara-Heibei Shoten in 
Kyoto, which has been in existence since 1764 and is one of the oldest 
chopsticks shops in Japan, was also very fruitful. I thank the shop owner 
for sharing with me an article featuring their store, which bears the 



interesting title “Chopsticks: A Tool that Bridges Food and Culture.” It 
stresses that since chopsticks and bridge are pronounced the same in 
Japanese, chopsticks are a means for cross-cultural communication and 

In addition, I would like to thank Han Jiang, Han Junshu (again!), Lim 
Jie-hyun, Okamoto Michihiro, Pan Kuang-che, Dennis Rizzo, Sun 
Weiguo, Xing Yitian, Zhou Bing and Zeng Xuewen who either helped 
me find research materials or provided clues and/or answers to my queries. 
On-cho Ng, Di Wang and two other anonymous readers reviewed my 
original prospectus for Cambridge University Press and offered valuable 
suggestions. Their ideas were useful for shaping and improving the 
structure of the book, for which I am thankful. Marigold Acland at 
Cambridge University Press, with whom I first discussed the idea of 
writing this book, was a strong supporter of the project from the outset. 
After completing the manuscript, I also received valuable help from Lucy 
Rhymer, Marigold’s successor, and Amanda George at the Press. Without 
their professional knowledge and assistance, this book would not be the 
one it is now. 

I essentially wrote this book for my mother and my son. To my mother, 
I owe a debt for her teaching me how to use the utensil correctly all my life. 
I also hope my son, who is old enough to use chopsticks, can carry on this 
tradition, and pass it on to his children. Last but not least, I thank my wife 
Ni who, a college professor herself, has a deep understanding of what it 
entails for me to complete a task like this one. My appreciation of her 
patience and support is beyond words. 


1. Bone spoons unearthed at a Neolithic cultural site in Sichuan, China. 
(Courtesy of Ai Zhike, the Sanxia Museum, Chongqing, China) 

2. Neolithic bone chopsticks found in Longqiuzhuang, a Neolithic 
cultural site in Jiansu, China. 

(Courtesy of the Yangzhou Museum, China) 

3 . Neolithic bone chopsticks (the two thin sticks in the lower part) in 

(Courtesy of the Yangzhou Museum, China) 

4. This brick carving shows how chopsticks were used in early China, 
c. first century ce. 

(Zhongguo huaxiangzhuan quanji [Complete collections of Chinese 
brick carvings], ed. Yu Weichao, Chengdu: Sichuan meishu 
chubanshe, zoo6, p. yp) 

5 . Eating customs in early China - sitting on the floor with foods placed 
on short-legged tables, shown on a brick carving, first to third 
centuries ce. 

(Zhongguo lidai yishu: huihua bian [the Chinese art in different dynasties: 
painting[, Beijing: Renmin Meishu Chubanshe, 1994, part i, p. jx) 

6. Brick painting from the Fresco Tombs of the Wei and Jin Dynasty 
showing chopsticks used as utensils for cooking in early China, 

c. third-fifth centuries ce. 

(Painting from the Fresco Tombs of the Wei and Jin Dynasty located 
in the Northwestern Gobi desert 20 km from Jiayuguan city. 



List of plates 

(Mural paintings in Jiayuguan, Jiuquan tombs of the Wei and Jin 
periods), ed. Zhang Baoxun, Lanzhou: Gansu renmin chubanshe, 
2001 , p. z6i) 

7. A food tray with wooden bowls and a pair of bamboo chopsticks 
found in the Mawangdui Tombs, Han China, c. second century bce. 
(Changsha Mawangdui yihao hanmu [Mawangdui # i Han tomb in 
Changsha], Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1973, n. p. lyi) 

8. “Fire sticks” from Edo-period Japan - used to arrange charcoals and 
stoke flames - are another example of how chopsticks could be used 
other than as an eating utensil. 

(Courtesy of the Edo-Tokyo Museum, Japan) 

9. The Manchus usually combined the use of chopsticks with knives 
and forks. 

(Manchurian implements, c. lyth-ipth centuries. Courtesy ofLan 
Xiang, a private collector of chopsticks in Shanghai) 

10. Eating and drinking in a tent tavern portrayed in a fresco in 
Dunhuang, a famous Buddhist grotto of Tang China, eighth-ninth 

(Dunhuang shiku quanji [Complete collections of Dunhuang Grotto 
murals], ed. Dunhuang yanjiuyuan, Shanghai: Shanghai renmin 
chubanshe, 2001, vol. 23, p. 43) 

11. “A Picnic Outside” - a mural painting of the Tang Dynasty showing 
that chopsticks were used to convey foods and that diners sat on the 
benches instead of the floor, c. eighth century. 

(DaTang bihua [Mural paintings of the great Tang dynasty], eds. Tang 
Changdong & Li Guozhen, Xi’an: Shanxi liiyou chubanshe, 1996, 
p. 127) 

12. “Literary Gathering”, Zhao Ji (1082-1135). Handscroll, ink and 
colors on silk, 184.4 ^ 12.3.9 cm. 

(Courtesy of the National Palace Museum, Taipei) 

13. “Han Xizai’s Night Banquet,” or “The Night Revels of Han Xizai” 
(detail), c. 970, by Gu Hongzhong, showing that the Chinese sat 
on chairs to eat individually rather than communally as in later 
periods. Handscroll, ink and color on silk, 28.7 cm high, 

335.5 cm wide. 

(Courtesy of the Palace Museum, Beijing) 

List of plates 


14. A mural found in a tomb from Song China (960-1127) portraying a 
couple, or the Zhaos, eating together at a table on high chairs, 
suggesting communal eating had begun in the family after the tenth 
century in China. 

(Zhongguo mush bihua quanji: Song, Liao, Jin, Yuan [Complete 
collections of Chinese tomb murals: Song, Liao, Jin and Yuan 
dynasties], Shijiazhuang: Hebei Jiaoyu chubanshe, zoii,p. 86) 

15. A family eating together at one sitting during the Jurchen period 
(c. thirteenth century), suggesting the spread of a communal eating 
style in Asia. 

(Zhongguo mush bihua quanji: Song, Liao, Jin, Yuan [Complete 
collections of Chinese tomb murals: Song, Liao, Jin and Yuan 
dynasties], Shijiazhuang: Hebei Jiaoyu chubanshe, zoii, p. 114) 

16. '"'Women 22” by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1862). The Japanese have 
been accustomed to chopsticks since approximately the seventh century, 
as shown in this Ukiyo-e painting, a popular genre in Edo Japan. 
(“Women zz” by Utagawa Kuniyoshi [1797-1862], Public Domain) 

17 “A Group of Trackers,” drawing by a European visitor to 

eighteenth -century China depicting how the Chinese ate with chopsticks. 
(From 'Views of Eighteenth Century China: Costumes, History, 
Customs, by William Alexander & George Henry Mason, © London, 
Studio editions, ip88, p. zy) 

18. Portrait of Li-Lieu Ying, Empress Tzu-Hsi’s Great Eunuch, late 
nineteenth century. 

(Chinese School, nineteenth century. Private Collection / Bridgeman 

19. “The Latest Craze of American Society, New Yorkers Dining in a 
Chinese Restaurant,” Leslie Hunter (fl. 1910), Illustration from The 
Graphic Magazine, 1911. 

(Private Collection / The Stapleton Collection / Bridgeman Images) 

20. Pairs of chopsticks to be packed into bento boxes in Japan. 

(Author’s photograph) 

21. Japanese “husband-wife chopsticks,” which are often painted with 
lacquer. The pair for the husband are slightly longer and less colourful 
than the pair for the wife. 

(Author’s photograph) 


List of plates 

2.2.. Japanese festive chopsticks, shaped with two tapered ends and a 
round body, reflecting the belief in humans and deities sharing food 
together at one meal on holidays and at festivals. 

(Author’s photograph) 

23. Training chopsticks, a Japanese invention, ensure that a young child 
can easily put the tool on his/her fingers and pick up food. 

(Author’s photograph) 

24. Using Japanese chopsticks to eat soba noodles and duck meat. 

/© TOHRU MINOWA/a.collectionRF/ amana images inc. / Alamy) 

25 . The fact that rice can be transported in clumps using chopsticks has led 
to chopsticks becoming the main utensil used in Asia. 

/© Keller & Keller Photography ! Bon Appetit / Alamy) 

26. Chinese chopsticks, chopstick rests, porcelain spoons and bowls at a 
market stall, Stanley Market, Stanley, Hong Kong, China. 

/© Steve Vidler/ SuperStock / Alamy) 

27. Decorative chopsticks sold in Japanese stores, which are more of a gift 
than an eating implement. 

(Author’s photograph) 

28. Eating Chinese takeout with disposable chopsticks. 

/© Kablonk RM/ Golden Pixels LLC / Alamy) 

29. Couples dressed according to Han Dynasty customs eating together 
in a group wedding ceremony in Xi’an, China. 

/© Corbis) 

Color plates are located between pages 92 and 93. 







To 4000 


Early humans 

y Neolithic period 

y Paleolithic and 


Neolithic period 



Neolithic period (Yangshao) 

Neolithic periods 





Discovery of bone utensils 



Neolithic period 

/ Neolithic period 

y Neolithic period 


Neolithic period 



Xia, Shang, Zhou dynasties 

y Origin myths 

y Origin myths 


Bronze Age 


Oracle bone inscriptions / Writing 


Bronze Age (bronze utensils) 

1000 BCE to 


Zhou and Warring States periods 

y Bronze Age 

y Neolithic period 


Bronze Age 

300 CE 


Qin and Han dynasties 

y Iron Age 



Iron Age 


Silk Road 

y Chinese Han military 

y Yayoi Culture 


Conquest by Han 


Confucianism and Daoism 


y Origin myths 

dynasty of China 


Millet as staple in north and rice in 

y Early Three Kingdoms 




Spread of wheat flour foods 


Shift from using fingers to utensils for 

300-600 CE 


Fall of the Han dynasty 

y Three Kingdoms period 

y Kofun (Tomb) 


Bronze Age 



y Discovery of bronze 



Iron Age 


Period of Northern and Southern 

utensils (spoons and 

y Asuka period 





y Buddhism 


Chinese rule 


Tang dynasty 



Spoons and chopsticks used as a set 


Use of utensils for 

of eating tools 








/ Tang dynasty 

/ United Silla 

•/ Asuka period 

/ Chinese rule 


/ Spread of Buddhism 
y Silk Road 

•/ Wheat and millet were staples in 
North China and rice in South China 
Fall of the Tang dynasty 

/ Goryeo period 
/ Use of utensils for food 

•/ Nara period 
•/ Heian period 
•/ Spread of Buddhism 
•/ Japanese missions to 

/ Introduction of 
utensil use 

/ Discovery of wooden 



•/ Song dynasty 

/ Goryeo dynasty 

•/ Late Heian period 

/ End of Chinese 


/ Liao dynasty 

/ Jin dynasty 

/ Xixia dynasty 

•/ Introduction of Champa rice 

•/ Mongol conquest and Yuan dynasty 

y Neo-Confucianism 

/ Ming dynasty 

/ Development of communal eating 

•/ Chopsticks became exclusive 
eating tool 

/ Joseon dynasty 
/ Neo-Confucianism 
/ Mongol conquest 
/ Meat consumption 
/ Metal utensils 

•/ Kamakura and 
Muromachi periods 
•/ Chopsticks for food 



/ Ming dynasty 

/ Joseon dynasty 

/ Muramachi period 

•/ Independent 


/ Qing dynasty 

/ Ming China and Joseon 

•/ Unification of Japan 


/ Porcelain soup spoon 

against Japanese invasion 
/ Spoon and chopsticks as a 
set of eating tools 

•/ Tokugawa period 
•/ Edo period 

•/ Le dynasty 
against Champa 

Russia / 

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0 / ' ' Mongolia ^'* ! J un 

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\ I V^/a(l)-vf Vietnam Vi, PACIFIC 





Over one and a half billion people eat food with chopsticks daily. This is 
the first book in English that traces the history of the utensil from ancient 
times to the present day. The aim of this book is threefold. The first is to 
offer a comprehensive and reliable account of how and why chopsticks 
became adopted by their users and continued, as a dining habit, through 
the centuries in Asia and beyond. The second is to discuss the culinary 
impact of chopsticks use on Asian cookeries and cuisines and vice versa: 
how the change of foodways in the region influenced people’s choice of 
eating tools to aid their food consumption. And the third is to analyze the 
cultural meanings of chopsticks and chopsticks use in the respective cul- 
tures of their users. Chopsticks are distinctive in that though mainly an 
eating implement, they also have many other uses. A rich and deep cultural 
text is embedded in the history of chopsticks, awaiting our exploration. 

Over many centuries, chopsticks have helped distinguish their users in 
Asia from those in the rest of the world. So much so that some Japanese 
scholars have identified a distinct “chopsticks cultural sphere” vis-a-vis the 
other two spheres on the globe: those who feed with fingers, which was a 
dining tradition for the people in the Middle East, South Asia and some parts 
of Southeast Asia, and those who eat with forks and knives, or the people 
who live in today’s Europe, North and South America, Australia, etc.^ Other 
scholars, such as Lynn White, have also noticed this tripartite division among 

^ Isshiki Hachiro, Hashi no Bunkashi: Sekai no Hashi Nihon no Hashi (A cultural history of 
chopsticks: world chopsticks and Japanese chopsticks) (Tokyo: Ochanomizu Shobo, 1990), 
36-40; and Mukai Yukiko 6c Hashimoto Keiko, Hashi (Chopsticks) (Tokyo: Hosei daigaku 
shuppankyoku, 2001), 135-142. 



Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

the finger-feeders, the fork-feeders and the chopsticks-feeders in the world.^ 
Centering on China, where the utensil originated, the chopsticks cultural 
sphere encompasses the Korean Peninsula, the Japanese archipelago, certain 
regions of Southeast Asia, the Mongolian Steppe and the Tibetan Plateau. 
Thanks to the increasing global popularity of Asian foods in recent decades, 
this sphere is expanding - people outside the zone have increasingly adopted 
chopsticks while eating Asian foods. Indeed, in Chinese and other Asian 
restaurants throughout the world, many non-Asian customers attempt the 
use of chopsticks, with some showing admirable dexterity. In Thailand and 
Nepal, where the traditional dining method is to use one’s right hand, it is 
now increasingly common to see people use chopsticks to convey foods. 

For many chopsticks users, employing this Asian eating utensil does not 
just continue a time-honored dietary practice. They also believe its use 
brings myriad benefits besides conveying food. Kimiko Barber, a Japanese- 
English author living in London, wrote The Chopsticks Diet (Z009), in 
which she argues that while Japanese food is by and large healthier than 
Westerners’, the key to a healthy diet is not what you eat, but how you eat. 
Chopsticks, she claims, bring such a benefit. “Eating with chopsticks slows 
people down and therefore they eat less,” she writes. And eating less is not 
the only benefit. Since one eats more slowly with chopsticks - by as much 
as twenty more minutes per meal - by her calculation, “it also has,” Barber 
proclaims, “the psychological benefit of making you think about the food 
and the enjoyment you get from it.”^ In other words, eating with chop- 
sticks helps you to appreciate food and turns you into a gourmet! 

Others argue that there are even more benefits. Isshiki Hachiro, one of 
the Japanese writers who coined the term “chopsticks cultural sphere,” 
maintains that since chopsticks use requires brain-hand coordination 
(perhaps more so than using other implements), it improves not only 
one’s dexterity but ultimately also the development of one’s brain, espe- 
cially among children. And Isshiki is not the only one who holds this 
belief."^ Scientists in recent years have conducted experiments exploring. 

^ Lynn White, a professor of history at UCLA, gave a speech, entitled “Fingers, Chopsticks 
and Forks: Reflections on the Technology of Eating,” at the American Philosophical Society 
meeting in Philadelphia on July 17, 1983, in which he discussed these different dining 
habits. New York Times (Late Edition - East Coast), July 17, 1983, A-22. 

^ Kimiko Barber, The Chopsticks Diet: Japanese-Inspired Recipes for Easy Weight-Loss 
(Lanham: Kyle Books, 2009), 7* 

^ Isshiki, Hashi no Bunkashi, 201-220. In their study of chopsticks, Mukai and Hashimoto 
also describe how learning to use chopsticks helps children’s development of fine motor 
skills. Hashi, 181-186. 



among other questions, whether or not habitually using the eating device 
improves one’s deftness. Psychologists too have examined whether chop- 
sticks manipulation among children could promote a higher level of 
independence in eating. The findings in both cases are positive. In the 
meantime, scientific research also suggests that while helping to develop 
fine motor skills among children, lifetime chopsticks use might result in a 
higher risk of osteoarthritis in hand joints among the elderly.’ 

To investigate and explain the various benefits as well as possible harms 
associated with chopsticks use is certainly a worthwhile scientific under- 
taking. Yet my goals are limited to the three I set out at the beginning; as 
a historian, I shall mainly discuss the advantages and disadvantages of 
chopsticks use in history and base my discussion on historical and archaeo- 
logical evidence. To describe the multiple functions of chopsticks as a 
social token, literary symbol, cultural artifact and religious object, I will 
rely on literary sources, folklore and religious texts. 

As an eating implement used across Asia for several millennia, chop- 
sticks have shown their continuing utility and persistent appeal, even 
though it requires some practice to wrap one’s fingers around them prop- 
erly and put the tool to effective use. In the chopsticks cultural sphere, 
such training usually begins in childhood. In more recent years, reflecting 
Western cultural influence, forks and knives have increased their presence 
in Asian countries, not only in restaurants frequented by Western custom- 
ers. Meanwhile, the level of skillfulness among young Asians in proper 
chopsticks use also is said to have declined. Having failed to receive 
adequate instruction at home, where one traditionally learned how to 
use chopsticks, many children nowadays simply apply the utensil in their 
own way, however inelegantly. Nonetheless, compared to the other parts 
of the world where many now depend on Western cutlery to transport 
food, the base of the chopsticks cultural sphere remains intact and solid - 
the utensil is indispensable to people in their day-to-day life. Moreover, 
those living in the zone also expect outside visitors to use the implement, as 

^ Sohee Shin, Shinichi Demura 6c Hiroki Aoki, "Effects of Prior Use of Chopsticks on Two 
Different Types of Dexterity Tests: Moving Beans Test and Purdue Pegboard,” 
Perceptual & Motor Skills, 108:2 (April 2009), 392-398; Cheng-Pin Ho 6c Swei-Pi Wu, 
"Mode of Grasp, Materials, and Grooved Chopsticks Tip on Gripping Performance and 
Evaluation,” Perceptual & Motor Skills, 102:1 (February 2006), 93-103; Sheila Wong, 
Kingsley Chan, Virginia Wong 6c Wilfred Wong, “Use of Chopsticks in Chinese Children,” 
Child: Care, Health & Development, 28:2 (March 2002), 157-161; David J. Hunter, 
Yuqing Zhang, Michael C. Nevitt, Ling Xu, Jingbo Niu, Li-Yung Lui, Wei Yu, 
Piran Aliabadi 6c David T. Felson, “Chopsticks Arthropathy: The Beijing Osteoarthritis 
Study,” Arthritis & Rheumatism, 50:5 (May 2004), 1495-1500. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

it is the only utensil put on the table in most eateries. In Chinese and 
other Asian restaurants outside Asia, simple illustrations on how to use 
the eating device are often printed either on the chopsticks’ sleeves or on 
the paper tablemat, encouraging all their patrons to experiment with it. 

When were chopsticks invented and how were they originally used in 
ancient China? Archaeological finds have yielded samples of bone sticks in 
various Neolithic cultural sites in China, which suggests that prototype 
chopsticks had appeared as early as 5000 bce, if not before. Yet if they 
were indeed chopsticks, they might have not been used exclusively for 
conveying food. Rather, those proto-chopsticks probably had a dual func- 
tion: either as a cooking or as a dining utensil, or as both. This, interest- 
ingly, remains the case in many Asian households; that is, chopsticks are a 
convenient kitchen utensil to this day. For instance, when boiling food, 
one can use (chop)sticks as stirrers and/or mixers. One, too, can use them, 
in pairs, to pick up food contents in a cooking vessel in a pincer movement. 
When one also transports the foodstuffs from the vessel to the mouth, then 
the sticks one uses become an eating tool, or chopsticks. This is how food 
experts generally believe chopsticks originated in ancient China. Historical 
texts and research have shown that from the fourth century bce, eating 
with utensils (chopsticks included), rather than fingers, gradually became 
the preferred dining custom among the Chinese.'’ 

Once invented, both cultural and culinary factors played, distinctly or 
relatedly, a part in enhancing chopsticks use, and utensil use in general. To 
the Chinese and other Asians, using utensils to convey foods represents 
cultural advancement, a point we will return to throughout the book. But 
utensil use may also be essential if food is cooked and eaten hot. During the 
Shang dynasty (1600-1046 bce), or China’s Bronze Age, bronze vessels in 
the form of cauldrons and tripods were commonplace. Without a doubt, 
these utensils were made for cooking, especially for boiling. Of course, one 
can eat cooked food with fingers. But if the contents are immersed in the 
broth, as is common with boiled food, then it is difficult. Moreover, it 
seems the early Chinese not only preferred boiled foods, but they also liked 
to eat them hot. To avoid scalding or soiling their hands, utensil use thus 
became necessary. No definitive explanation, however, has been given as 
to how and why this food habit - eating hot food - became favored among 

^ Ota Masako, Hashi no genryii o saguru: Chiikoku kodai ni okeru hashi shiyo shuzoku 
seiritsu {Investigation into the origin of chopsticks: the establishment of the habit of chop- 
sticks use in ancient China) (Tokyo: Kyuko Shoin, 2001), 1-23; and Liu Yun et ah, 
Zhongguo zhu wenhuashi (A history of chopsticks culture in China) (Beijing: Zhonghua 
shuju, 2006), yoff. 



the Chinese, and remains so more or less to this day. The climate of North 
China might be a factor, as it was (and is) mostly cold and dry except in the 
summer, which made hot food gastronomically more agreeable. Stew 
{geng in Chinese) was recorded as the most popular dish in historical 
texts from ancient China. Meat consumption, which seems to have been 
more prevalent in earlier times than in later periods, might be another, for 
cooked meat becomes less palatable when it becomes cold. 

Once utensil use became a dietary custom and accepted as a form of 
culture, it appealed to peoples across various geographical zones. The 
Japanese, for instance, do not necessarily prefer eating hot food as do the 
people in North China, but they have been committed chopsticks users since 
the seventh century. Vietnamese cookery features some hot dishes, even 
though the region’s climate is much more warm and humid than North 
China’s. It can be argued that the Japanese and the Vietnamese turned to 
utensil use in eating mostly because of Chinese cultural influences. In the 
case of Vietnam, which was ruled by imperial China for a millennium, this 
cultural factor is particularly salient since most of their neighbors in 
Southeast Asia traditionally consumed food with hands. By contrast, the 
Viemamese have adopted chopsticks as a utensil for many centuries. 

If one decides to use a utensil to eat, does it have to be a pair of 
chopsticks? Not necessarily. Indeed, although the chopsticks cultural 
sphere has existed in Asia from approximately the fifth century to the 
present, the eating device was not the only one invented and used by the 
people in the zone. Indeed, spoons and ladles, as well as knives and forks, 
all appeared in the continent and were used as either cooking or eating 
utensils. Moreover, according to archaeological finds and historical texts, 
though invented early, chopsticks were not the earliest nor, for a long time, 
the primary eating tool, even in ancient China, their birthplace. Spoons 
were. More precisely, it was a dagger-shaped spoon, known as bi lA in 
Chinese, that was used as the essential implement for eating among the 
ancient Chinese (Plate i). 

To understand why the spoon was initially a more important eating tool 
than chopsticks, one needs to consider the types of food the Chinese and 
other Asians consumed historically. Food historians tend to divide human 
foods into two categories: grain and nongrain food. The former, appa- 
rently, is more important because in many places, consuming a meal is 
often equivalent to eating a grain cereal, be it rice, wheat, millet or maize. 
Asians are no exception. In the Chinese language, fan is a rubric word 
for all cooked grain food, even though in modern times, it usually 
means “cooked rice.” Pronounced bap in Korean, [go]han in Japanese 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

and co’m in Vietnamese, the word conveys the same meaning in those 
Asian languages as well. As such, eating a meal in Chinese is simply chifan, 
which literarily means “eating cooked grain (rice),” even though the meal 
most likely also consists of nongrain food dishes, which are referred to as 
cai. Likewise, gohan o taberu carries the same dual meaning in Japanese, 
rather than just meaning feeding oneself with cooked rice. These similar 
expressions suggest the importance of grain food in a meal. In fact, 
nongrain food dishes - cai - in colloquial Chinese are sometimes called 
xiafan, or “rice downers,” revealing that their principal function is to 
help people ingest the grain food. 

The spoon was the main eating utensil in ancient China because the 
Chinese used it to transport grain food (not soup as in later times). By 
comparison, chopsticks were the device designed initially for carrying 
nongrain foods. As a dual set, these two instruments were termed bizhu, 
or “spoon and chopsticks” in parallel, in Chinese literature for many 
centuries. That the spoon precedes chopsticks in the word compound 
suggests its primacy, extending the fan and cai relationship in food intake. 
A reflection of this dining tradition can still be observed today, in the Korean 
Peninsula, where the people use both a spoon and chopsticks as a set in 
eating a meal. Like the dining custom of ancient China, the recommended 
practice among Koreans is to apply the spoon in transporting grain food, or 
rice, whereas chopsticks are used for nongrain dishes. 

Yet the Koreans’ eating etiquette reflects more a cultural decision than a 
culinary need, for as rice increased in popularity as a grain staple across 
Asia, chopsticks became an effective tool to convey it in clumps to one’s 
mouth. This is what most chopsticks users usually do these days, including 
many Koreans on less formal occasions, such as in family dining. But 
from ancient to Tang times (618-907), the dominant grain in North 
China (and the Korean Peninsula) was millet, a hardy crop suitable for 
the region’s climate. Unlike cooked rice, which is sticky and can be moved 
in globs, millet is best cooked as porridge, which, as recommended by 
Chinese ritual texts, made the spoon a better tool in transporting it. 
Chopsticks, by comparison, were then mostly used to pick up foodstuffs 
from a soupy dish, such as a stew. 

If chopsticks were used as a secondary eating implement in ancient 
China because their assigned function was to transfer only the nongrain 
food, or the foodstuffs in a stew, this role soon changed. In fact, the change 
began as early as the Han dynasty (206 bce to 220 ce), due to the growing 
appeal of floured wheat foods, or noodles, dumplings and pancakes. 
Archaeology has shown that the Chinese had long learned how to grind 



grains on mortars and pestles to make noodles. Indeed, the world’s earliest 
sample of noodles has been discovered in Northwest China; made of millet 
grains, it is over 4,000 years old. During the Han period, powered either by 
humans or by animals, stone mills became widespread. And besides millet, 
the Chinese also milled wheat, possibly due to the cultural influences from 
Central Asia. Before milling became a widely accepted method in process- 
ing wheat, the Chinese had consumed wheat whole by boiling it. Yet 
without question, it was flour that turned wheat into a more popular 
grain; by the end of the Tang dynasty, or the early tenth century, wheat 
indeed had become important enough to shake the predominance of millet 
in North China. 

In addition to pancakes and buns, noodles and dumplings are two well- 
liked forms of wheat foods, in Asia as well as in other parts of the world. 
For eating these two foods, chopsticks were considered a better tool than 
the spoon. In other words, thanks to the appeal of wheat foods, chopsticks 
began to challenge the spoon’s primacy from approximately the first 
century in China. Interestingly, food experts in the West have observed 
that the pasta noodle’s popularity also caused Europeans, much later, to 
use the fork and eventually other table utensils from the fourteenth century 
onward. According to an Italian story, the fork had been introduced to 
Europeans as an eating implement - as opposed to its being a kitchen tool 
in Roman times - by a Turkish princess after she married a wealthy 
nobleman from Venice in the early eleventh century. Yet it only became 
widely used once Europeans grew accustomed to pasta. Indeed, according 
to some research, medieval Turks not only used the fork but, at one time, 
also chopsticks to eat pasta. ^ In any case, if the fork is the tool for handling 
noodles among Europeans and others, chopsticks are the choice for 
Asians, including those outside the bounds of the chopsticks cultural 
sphere. In such countries as Thailand in Southeast Asia, people also tend 
to use chopsticks to convey noodles whereas for other foods they use either 
fingers or other utensils.** 

Noodles are a grain food. Yet more often than not, people do not eat 
noodles by themselves. They tend to mix them with something else, be it a 

^ See Giovanni Rebora, Culture of the Fork, trans. Albert Sonnenfeld (New York: Columbia 
University Press, 2001), 14-17; James Cross Giblin, From Hand to Mouth, Or How We 
Invented Knives, Forks, Spoons, and Chopsticks and the Table Manners to Go with Them 
(New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1987), 45-46; and Peter B. Golden, “Chopsticks and 
Pasta in Medieval Turkic Cuisine,” Rocznik orientalisticzny, 49 (1994-1995), 71-80. 

^ Penny Van Esterik, Food Culture in Southeast Asia (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2008), 
xxiv; 54-55- 

Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

soup, a sauce or sometimes meat and vegetables. In so doing, noodles 
become a meal. In this mixture, the supposed fan and cai, or grain and 
nongrain food dichotomy, comes unraveled. A good example in Asia is the 
lamian (ramen in Japanese), a type of soup noodle that originated in China 
but gained wide popularity throughout Asia in more recent centuries. The 
noodle in the lamian/ ramen is made by stretching, or “pulling” as the word 
la/ra suggests, the wheat dough many times into strands and strips, by 
hand or by machine. But its appeal is due as much to the accompanying 
soup, which is flavored with meat, vegetables, green onions, soy sauce 
and other condiments. The Japanese ramen also typically has seaweed, 
kamaboko (a fish cake sliced into pieces) and sometimes an egg. All of 
this suggests that once seasoned, a noodle dish coalesces and blends 
grain and nongrain foods into one. Similarly, a Chinese dumpling, which 
wraps ground meat and vegetables with a thinly rolled dough skin, also 
transcends the traditional grain/nongrain food divide. When these wheat 
foods were consumed with the aid of chopsticks, the eating device effec- 
tively rivaled the spoon (Plate Z4). 

But the spread of wheat foods probably was only the story of North 
China. In such regions as South China, where rice had been the staple grain 
from time immemorial, the inhabitants probably had used chopsticks to 
carry both the grain starch and the accompanying nongrain dishes for a 
long time. In the Song period (960-1279), rice production grew consid- 
erably in both North and South China, thanks to the adoption of a new - 
early ripening - rice variety from Vietnam. The growth continued well into 
the Ming period (1368-1644) and expanded also into Korea. The increase 
of rice consumption during those periods reinforced and solidified the 
foundation of the chopsticks cultural sphere. From the fourteenth century, 
historical and literary sources reveal that chopsticks became the exclusive 
eating implement for many. This change was especially notable among the 
Chinese, since their dining tradition before had been to employ both spoon 
and chopsticks together. Likely reasons for the exclusive use of chopsticks 
in China were myriad, one being the broad adoption of the communal 
eating style, with all diners sitting together at a square table. Once chop- 
sticks were used in transporting both the grain and nongrain foods, the 
utensil became the primary eating tool in the chopsticks cultural sphere. 
As a result, the spoon was relegated to use for soup, with a modified design 
(Plate 26). It remains so in China, Vietnam and Japan today. 

Besides rice consumption, tea drinking, another distinct cultural tradi- 
tion with an Asian/Chinese origin, might have also increased the appeal of 
chopsticks as a table utensil. For although many tea experts like to savor 



the beverage by itself, it was/is also customary among tea drinkers to nibble 
on some snacks or small dishes to go with the drink. These snacks and 
appetizers are called either xiaoshi (lit. small foods) or dianxin-, the latter 
is more commonly spelled as “dim sum” in English, meaning appetizers. 
Both terms appeared in Tang China, thanks to the growing trend of tea 
drinking. The custom of drinking tea while sampling a variety of small 
dishes was to intensify and expand in the following centuries and continues 
to this day. Most of these small dishes - pancakes, meat, shrimp or fish 
balls, etc. found commonly nowadays in Cantonese restaurants around the 
world - are best and customarily eaten with chopsticks. And chopsticks are 
indeed often the most common utensil found in inns as well as in teahouses 
in Asia (Plate 19). 

Since chopsticks can be inexpensive (if made of bamboo or cheap 
wood) compared to other utensils, chopsticks have become the most 
used utensil in Asia also because they are cost-effective. In a sense, both 
tea drinking and chopsticks use are habits that can be enjoyed by people of 
different social backgrounds. Undeniably, class differences do exist in 
practice. The rich, for example, can afford expensive tea and chopsticks 
whereas the poor cannot. But whether rich or poor, one can drink tea to 
relax and use chopsticks to eat. Indeed, as will be argued in this book, the 
exclusive use of chopsticks as the eating tool, as well as the development of 
communal eating, probably began with the lower social classes in Chinese 
and other neighboring societies. As they are casual and informal, these 
customs are more likely to be practiced first among the ordinary people 
and gradually move upward to the members of the upper social strata. 
That some Koreans use chopsticks - instead of the ritual-required spoon - 
to transport rice in family dining and on other similarly relaxed occasions 
might also help illustrate the point. 

What about the knives and forks that had once appeared almost in 
tandem with spoons and chopsticks in ancient China? In the Han tombs 
unearthed by modern archaeologists, there are several cooking and 
eating scenes portrayed on the walls. These stone paintings and carvings 
show that knives and forks were then used as kitchen utensils, but not as 
eating implements. And in the subsequent centuries, knives, or cleavers, 
and forks retained this function without any change, till their being (re) 
introduced as tableware by Europeans in modern times. In other words, 
unlike chopsticks, which began as a cooking tool but later became a 
table utensil, forks and knives failed to undergo such a metamorphosis 
in China and neighboring regions. Again, culinary and cultural factors 
played their part. 

lo Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

Culinarily speaking, the popularity of the stew in early China is some- 
thing worth our attention. A stew is generally made by boiling and simmer- 
ing solid food ingredients in liquid and is served together with the gravy or 
the sauce. Both historical texts and archaeological finds from Han China 
suggest that during this period, if not before, the solid ingredients in the stew 
were already cut into bite-size morsels before cooking. The knife used to cut 
the meat thus could stay in the kitchen, since there was no need for it to be on 
the table. As the morsels were small and in a broth, chopsticks were a more 
effective tool than, say, a fork to pick them up. 

One could, of course, say that meat was pre-cut into bite-size portions 
because people preferred to use chopsticks. Roland Barthes (1915-1980), 
the French linguist and literary critic who visited Japan during the 1960s, 
indeed made such an observation, stressing that the food and the utensil 
were complementary to each other: 

There is a convergence of the tiny and the esculent: things are not only small in 
order to be eaten, but are also comestible in order to fulfill their essence, which is 
smallness. The harmony between Oriental food and chopsticks cannot be merely 
functional, instrumental; the foodstuffs are cut up so they can be grasped by the 
sticks, but also the chopsticks exist because the foodstuffs are cut into small pieces; 
one and the same movement, one and the same form transcends the substance and 
its utensil: division.^ 

Having observed closely how chopsticks were used in carrying the food, 
Roland Barthes also speculated on the cultural significance of chopsticks 
use by comparing it to that of the knife and the fork, the cutlery to which he 
was more accustomed: 

For the chopsticks, in order to divide, must separate, part, peck, instead of cutting 
and piercing, in the manner of our implements; they never violate the foodstuff: 
either they gradually unravel it (in the case of vegetables) or else prod it into 
separate pieces (in the case of fish, eels), thereby rediscovering the natural fissures 
of the substance (in this, much closer to the primitive finger than to the knife). 
Finally, and this is perhaps their loveliest function, the chopsticks transfer the food, 
either crossed like two hands, a support and no longer a pincer, they slide under the 
clump of rice and raise it to the diner’s mouth, or (by an age-old gesture of the 
whole Orient) they push the alimentary snow from bowl to lips in the manner of a 
scoop. In all these functions, in all the gestures they imply, chopsticks are the 
converse of our knife (and of its predatory substitute, the fork): they are the 
alimentary instrument which refuses to cut, to pierce, to mutilate, to trip (very 
limited gestures, relegated to the preparation of the food for cooking: the fish seller 

Roland Barthes, Empire of Signs, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 
1982), 15-16. 



who skins the still-living eel for us exorcises once and for all, in a preliminary 
sacrifice, the murder of food); by chopsticks, food becomes no longer a prey to 
which one does violence (meat, flesh over which one does battle), but a substance 
harmoniously transferred; they transform the previously divided substance into 
bird food and rice into a flow of milk; maternal, they tirelessly perform the gesture 
which creates the mouthful, leaving to our alimentary manners, armed with pikes 
and knives, that of predation/° 

This long rumination serves well for discussing the cultural factors 
influencing how and why chopsticks were turned into a table utensil 
from early China. According to Roland Barthes, chopsticks are not “pred- 
atory” in that their users do not treat food as “violently” as do those using 
knives and forks. Barthes is not the only one who has put forward this 
opinion. Upon seeing chopsticks on their trips to Asia in the sixteenth 
century, many Westerners developed a similar impression, commending 
the use of the utensil by Asians as a (more?) civilized dining custom. 

Among the Chinese, this has become a cherished cultural belief. Raymond 
Dawson, a sinologist who had a long career at Oxford, made a pithy state- 
ment that for the Chinese, 

No line so definitely divided civilized people from barbarians as that which separated 
men who consume their food with chopsticks from those who used their fingers or in 
later times such inferior instruments as knives and forks.” 

Needless to say, this notion has not been entertained only by the 
Chinese, but also by other Asians in the chopsticks cultural sphere, as 
they all leave the knife in the kitchen rather than bring it to the table. A 
simple way to trace the origin of this practice culturally is to look at the 
remark made by Mencius (37Z-Z89 bce), a major follower of Confucius 
( 5 5 1-479 bce), when he discussed one of the qualities of a “gentleman” or 
a “superior man” (the term used in Confucianism to stand for an upright, 
humane and often educated person): 

“There is no harm in their saying so,” said Mencius. “Your conduct was an artifice 
of benevolence. You saw the ox, and had not seen the sheep. So is the superior man 
affected towards animals, that, having seen them alive, he cannot bear to see them 
die; having heard their dying cries, he cannot bear to eat their flesh. Therefore he 
keeps away from his slaughter-house and cook-room.”” 

” Ibid., 17-18. 

Raymond S. Dawson, ed.. The Legacy of China (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 

1971), 342- 

Mencius, The Works of Mencius, trans. James Legge (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 
1970), 141. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

We do not know how this comment contributed to the overall meager 
presence of animal meat in traditional Asian cookery. But Mencius’ injunc- 
tion that a true gentleman ought to stay away from the kitchen was 
proverbial, not only in China but also around Asia, or at least within the 
reaches of Confucian influence. To follow it through, knives were to be 
used only by the cook in the kitchen to slice the meat into small morsels 
before presenting it on the table. And this seemed exactly what Confucius, 
Mencius’ master, had demanded when he was presented with a meat 
dish.^^ Compounded by Buddhist influence, which is thought to have 
developed in China around the first century, animal meat made even 
rarer appearances in Asian foods because Buddhism shunned any killing. 
If meat was used in cooking a dish, its main function, according to 
Frederick Mote, the late professor of Chinese history at Princeton, was 
“more often as flavoring for vegetables and as the basis of a sauce than as 
the principal component of a dish.”'"^ This culinary tradition thus effec- 
tively kept the knife inside an Asian kitchen for centuries. The absence of 
the knife also made the fork less useful, for the latter’s utility, among 
others, was to stabilize the meat for cutting. 

Although the Chinese and other chopsticks users in Asia traditionally 
believed their dining style to be more civilized than others’, it must be noted 
that whether one eats food with utensils or with fingers is only a reflection 
of cultural preference, rather than an indication of cultural sophistication. 
Indeed, a refined dining style is more dependent on how one brings food to 
the mouth than on whether and what instruments are applied. That is, in 
every dietary tradition, there is a way to demonstrate an elegant eating 
style vis-a-vis a coarse one; and how the two are differentiated often varies 
from one place to another. In many regions where people eat with their 
hands, for instance, they are often required to use only their right hand, as 
the left hand is deemed unclean. Moreover, a refined style in dining with 
hands, practiced in some places, is such that the diner only employs three 
fingers (the thumb, the index and the middle fingers) instead of the whole 
hand. In regions where Western cutlery is employed, sophistication in 
dining is shown in how one applies the suitable utensil(s) to the desired 
dish, be it salad, soup or the main course, accordingly and appropriately. 

Confucius, it was said, “did not dislike to have his rice finely cleaned, nor to have his mince 
meat cut quite small.” Confucian Analects, The Great Learning and The Doctrine of the 
Mean, trans. James Legge {New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1971), 232. 

Frederick Mote, "Yuan and Ming,” Food in Chinese Culture: Anthropological and 
Historical Perspectives, ed. K. C. Chang (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977), 201. 



Over the millennia when chopsticks have been employed in trans- 
ferring foods, a rule of etiquette has also been developed about how one 
should hold and use them, properly and gracefully. The rules of etiquette 
are surprisingly similar across the entire chopsticks cultural sphere. 
First, chopsticks users generally believe that the most effective and 
elegant way to hold the sticks is to place the lower one at the base of 
the thumb and secure this position by resting it between the ring and 
middle fingers in order to keep the stick stationary. Then the upper stick 
is to be held like a pencil, using the index and middle fingers for move- 
ment and the thumb for stabilization. In conveying food, the two sticks 
are worked together to grasp the food for transportation and delivery. 
Second, once one learns how to hold chopsticks, there is also general 
agreement as to how the device is applied in clasping and carrying the 
food. For instance, as nimble and flexible as they are, chopsticks are 
not used to mine or dig for food in the bowl in search of a particular item, 
nor to spear a food item (e.g. a meatball) even if it may be hard to pick 
up in the pincer movement. It usually is a faux pas if the food item drops 
or drips in the process of transfer. Since chopsticks are a widely used 
utensil, their proper and skillful use has become an essential part of good 
table manners in Asia. 

Table manners develop to prevent distasteful dining behavior, lest 
others’ appetite be affected. The development of the chopsticks etiquette 
described above essentially stems from the same interest and concern. In 
fact, one may argue that the invention and use of chopsticks has in part 
been intended to prevent messiness in eating. In the modern Western 
world, in addition to tableware, napkins are used to wipe one’s mouth 
and hands as needed. When Europeans went to Asia in the sixteenth 
century, they found that Asians used chopsticks instead to deliver bite- 
size food morsels from the bowl to the mouth, without soiling their 

Yet again, what is considered a neat and refined dining style certainly 
varies to a degree from people to people, culture to culture. In the 
chopsticks cultural sphere, for instance, since dropping food from the 
chopsticks is generally frowned upon, chopsticks users have developed 
various ways to prevent it from happening. One common approach is 

Francesco Carletti, an Italian merchant, visited Japan in the late sixteenth century and 
made such an observation: “With these two sticks, the Japanese are able to fill their 
mouths with marvelous swiftness and agility. They can pick up any piece of food, no 
matter how tiny it is, without ever soiling their hands.” Quoted in Giblin, From Hand to 
Mouthy 44. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

to reduce the distance of the transportation. While eating rice with 
chopsticks, therefore, the Chinese, the Japanese and the Vietnamese 
customarily raise the rice bowl up to their mouths and push the grain 
inside. But to Koreans and some of the Europeans who saw chopsticks 
used for the first time, this dining custom looked much less elegant. 
Koreans recommend instead the use of the spoon to transport rice, for 
this reason as well as for preserving an ancient rite. 

Whether used skillfully or not, chopsticks need to be operated together 
in a pair. This unique quality, or the sticks’ inseparableness, together with 
their design, color and material, have long helped the utensil to become a 
popular gift, a cultural symbol and even a literary metaphor across Asia. 
That is, chopsticks are not merely an eating implement. For their insepa- 
rableness, for instance, chopsticks have had a broad appeal across Asia as a 
wedding gift, and a token for exchanging affection between lovers and 
expressing good wishes for couples. Chopsticks are used as a primary, 
sometimes essential, item in wedding ceremonies among many peoples 
across Asia. Love stories featuring chopsticks also appear in Asian folklore 
and legends. In fact, as recorded in the stories and practiced still today at 
weddings, chopsticks do not merely appear, but are an effective tool for 
gesticulation. As such, literary writers have coined certain phrases, specific 
to the ways chopsticks are used, and employed them in poems and stories 
for vivid and graphic illustration. Lastly, the materials from which chop- 
sticks are made also carry important social and even political meanings. 
The wealthy, for example, tend to prefer expensive chopsticks, made of 
gold, silver, ivory, jade, ebony and rare wood, to reflect and boost their 
status - although ivory chopsticks, for historical reasons, were tradition- 
ally a symbol of decadence and corruption. As they are fragile, jade chop- 
sticks have not been used as a daily utensil. But they have appeared 
frequently in literary texts, where the color and shape of jade chopsticks 
are often compared figuratively to women’s tears! 

As an ancient utensil with a long history, therefore, chopsticks have 
evolved over time to become an adaptable tool, conveniently and crea- 
tively used on both eating and non-eating occasions. This adaptability 
has become their distinct characteristic, unmatched by other eating 
instruments. Tsung-dao Lee, a Nobel Prize Laureate in Physics, made 
an interesting comparison between chopsticks and fingers: 

As early as the Warring States period Chinese invented chopsticks. Although 
simple, the two sticks perfectly use the physics of leverage. Chopsticks are 
an extension of human fingers. Whatever fingers can do, chopsticks can do. 



too. Moreover, their great talent is not even affected by high temperatures or 
freezing cold.'*’ 

In more recent centuries, chopsticks have experienced yet more signifi- 
cant changes. Thanks to modern technology, for instance, plastic chop- 
sticks have become most common, surpassing the other varieties, as they 
are both durable and economical. But wooden and bamboo chopsticks 
remain popular, as do metal ones. In fact, durability sometimes is not 
the only quality one desires today. Modern consumerism, which touts 
consumption rather than saving and preservation, coupled with a height- 
ened sense of hygiene, have made the use of disposable chopsticks - mostly 
of cheap wood but sometimes also of bamboo - a new and rising trend in 
Asia and around the world. No doubt, the popularity of plastic and 
disposable varieties has made chopsticks use a global experience, adding 
to the cross-cultural appeal of Asian foods, and Chinese food in particular 
(Plate 28). The chopsticks cultural sphere, therefore, is growing, reaching 
corners outside Asia and around the globe. At the same time, the overuse of 
plastic and wooden materials has also given rise to environmental con- 
cerns. As one of the world’s oldest utensils, chopsticks are sure to retain 
their appeal for years to come. 

Lee supposedly expressed this opinion on the use of chopsticks when he was interviewed 
by a Japanese reporter. See 


Why chopsticks? Their origin and original function 

If the stew be made with vegetables, chopsticks should be used; but not if 
there be no vegetables. 

Do not use chopsticks in eating millet. 

Classic of Rites (Liji) 

On April 5, 1993, an archaeological team from the Institute of 
Archaeology of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences launched a series 
of excavations of Neolithic ruins in Longqiuzhuang in present-day 
Gaoyou, Jiangsu. By December 1995, the team had completed its fourth 
and last dig of the 1,3 3 5-square-meter site. From the ruins, dated between 
6600 and 5500 BCE, they unearthed over 2,000 objects, mostly tools and 
utensils made of animal bones. Hailed as one of the ten new archaeological 
discoveries of 1993, what distinguished this excavation from other 
archaeological discoveries in Neolithic China was that forty-two bone 
sticks were uncovered from the site - these sticks, Chinese scholars believe, 
were the earliest chopsticks (Plates 2 and 3)! 

Were they really chopsticks? What did they look like? According to the 
team’s report, these objects were between 9.2 and 18.5 cm in length and 
o. 3-0.9 cm in diameter. The sticks were thicker in the middle, with a 
square-shaped top, and their bottom tapered off into a point.' Though 
coarse, their appearance does indeed resemble chopsticks used today. 

^ Longqiuzhuang yizhi kaogudui {Archaeological team of the Longqiuzhuang ruins), 
Longqiuzhuang: Jianghuai dongbu xinshiqi shidai yizhi fajue baogao (Longqiuzhuang: 
Excavation report on the Neolithic ruins in the east of Jiangsu and Huai River) (Beijing: 
Kexue chubanshe, 1999), 346-347. 


why chopsticks^ Their origin and original function 17 

However, similar bone sticks had been found at other Neolithic sites, and 
scholars generally regarded them as hairpins. In fact, the Longqiuzhuang 
excavation originally ruled that the bone sticks were to be classified in this 

Nevertheless, Liu Yun, chief editor of A History of Chopsticks 
Culture in China (Zhongguo zhu wenhuashi), believes that these bone 
sticks were indeed chopsticks for two reasons. One is that the bone 
hairpins were more polished and largely uniform in length and shape, 
while the Longqiuzhuang sticks vary one from another. Though thicker in 
the middle, their two ends are either round, oblate, square or flat, as well as 
differing in size. The other is that, whereas the hairpins were usually posi- 
tioned near the head at burial, these sticks were placed down near the hands, 
along with other daily utensils such as pots and farming tools. Liu suggests 
that these bone sticks were used as feeding instruments, i.e. chopsticks. This 
assumption led Liu and others to reexamine some other Neolithic bone and 
wooden sticks found elsewhere. These scholars concluded that though 
originally deemed hairpins, like the Longqiuzhuang sticks, they, too, were 
placed around the body, rather than the head, and thus were more likely to 
be used as utensils for food.^ Still, questions remain: even if these sticks were 
used in handling food, were they actually chopsticks? More precisely, were 
they used in pairs and held by one hand to clasp food and carry it to the 
mouth as in later times? It is hard to know for sure, and more evidence 
is needed to ascertain whether the Longqiuzhuang finds are the world’s 
earliest examples of chopsticks. 

It is in the Bronze Age, or during the Shang dynasty (c. 1600-1046 bce), 
that there seems to be clearer evidence that the Chinese began using chop- 
sticks to prepare and eat meals. During the 1930s, archaeologists excavat- 
ing in the Henan Province of North China uncovered six bronze sticks, 
together with spoons and ladles, in the Shang capital ruins of Anyang. 
Their number and placement suggest that they had been used in pairs like 
tongs, although at about 1.3 cm in diameter, they were thicker than later 
chopsticks. Moreover, archaeologists are less sure if they were used exclu- 
sively for eating; some suspect that the sticks could well have been made for 
metallurgical work.^ But more assume that these bronze pieces were 
employed in cooking - stirring and mixing foodstuffs in a pot, or arranging 
charcoals or firewood and poking the flame (Plate 6). In his The Food of 

^ Liu, zhongguo zhu wenhuashi^ 52-55. 

^ Chen Mengjia, “Yindai tongqi” (Bronze vessels in the Shang dynasty), Kaogu xuebao 
(Journal of archaeology), 7 (1954); and Liu, Zhongguo zhu wenhuashi^ 92-93. 

Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

China, E. N. Anderson observes that few tools are needed to cook Chinese 
food: besides a cleaver, a chopping board, a wok or a pot, a wok shovel 
or turner and a pair of chopsticks are sufficient. Chopsticks, in his words, 
are used as “tongs, stirrers, whisks, strainers, rearrangers, and so forth. 
Based on traditional practices, then, the idea that the Shang materials were 
chopsticks seems to be reasonable, as they remain an essential cooking 
tool in East and Southeast Asia, with people using them as whisks 
(for beating eggs) and mixers (for blending ground meat and vegetables 
as dumpling fillings). 

Erom other Bronze Age sites in South and Southwest China, archaeol- 
ogists have uncovered sticks that they believe were, in fact, feeding tools. 
In Changyang, Hubei (located in the middle reach of the Yangzi River), for 
example, a dig in the 1980s yielded two bone chopsticks that also belonged 
to the Shang period. Likewise, a pair of ivory chopsticks - the earliest 
examples of this type - dated in the Zhou period (1045-256 bce) was 
uncovered in the same area. Additionally, bronze chopsticks were found in 
Anhui (South China) and Yunnan (Southwest China). Between 0.4 and 
0.6 cm in diameter, these objects were much slimmer than those found in 
Anyang. Thicker and square-shaped on the top and thinner and rounded at 
the bottom, these chopsticks look almost exactly like those in current 
usage. Wang Shancai, an archaeologist who participated in the excavation 
in Changyang, remarked: 

The shape and design of the ancient spoons and chopsticks discovered in 
Changyang are almost identical with the ones that we use today. The chopsticks 
were quite polished, whose surface was even decorated with carvings. As of today, 
the earliest chopsticks found by archaeologists were from the mid-Shang period, 
proving that the Chinese had used chopsticks about 3,300 years ago and that the 
level of technology in making them was also quite high.’ 

Significantly, Wang Shancai indicates that the spoon was another 
feeding instrument used in ancient China. Both archaeological evidence 
and literary sources have proven that the spoon indeed was the primary 
tool the early Chinese used to handle food. Like chopsticks, spoons could 
allow one to stir items cooking in a pot and convey them to the mouth. 
Thus, when (chop)sticks first appeared during the Neolithic Age, the 
spoon, or more precisely a dagger-shaped spoon - referred to as the bi 
or chi in Chinese historical texts - had been well known in China. This type 
of spoon, along with flint and bone knives, has been discovered in various 

E. N. Anderson, FooJ {New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), 150. 

^ Liu, Zhongguo zhu wenhuashi, 92-96; quote is on 94. 

why chopsticks!' Their origin and original function 


Neolithic deposits throughout China. To date, the earliest hi has been 
found in Peiligang in Wuyang, Henan, in North China, in 1977. Dated 
between 8000 and 7500 bce, these hi were made of animal bones, and are 
believed to have been used variously as a tool to cut meat, or to scoop 
cooked food from the pot or bowl. Besides these hi spoons, two pottery 
spoons were also present at the site. Compared with the bi, whose bottom 
is pointed and looks like a tongue, the pottery spoon - called shao or si 
in ancient Chinese - is rounder and oval in shape, more like a ladle. 
Both the bi and the shao have a narrow handle at the top. To this day, 
archaeological digs have yielded more dagger-shaped bi spoons than the 
oval-shaped shao type. While the bi was mostly made of animal bone, the 
shao could be made of other materials, including jade and ivory. They have 
surfaced elsewhere, such as in Banpo, Xi’an, in the mid-1950s. 

Knives and forks - made of bones and metals - have also been discov- 
ered in Neolithic China, though in a much smaller quantity. With the 
progress of time, fewer and fewer knives and forks were found in historical 
sites, indicating that the Chinese gradually turned away from using them 
(especially the knives) to eat food. The role of knives became limited to 
food preparation from the late Zhou period on. Forks, mostly with 
two tines instead of three or more, remained in use till the Han dynasty 
(206 BCE to 220 ce) and later. The fork then was a kitchen utensil, 
primarily for serving rather than for eating food.^ Chinese archaeologists 
have offered an explanation for why knives and forks were not used as 
feeding tools in traditional China. “The use of the fork had a close relation- 
ship with the consumption of meat,” observes Wang Renxiang of the 
Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, “because 
different from the spoon and chopsticks, the fork allows one to use strength 
to convey food [meat]. In ancient China, the fork was not so common 
because those who used it, or the ‘carnivores,’ were limited to the upper 
class whereas most people were ‘herbivores.’ As the latter’s food seldom 
contained meat, they did not need the fork.”^ While Wang’s point can be 
qualified by the fact that the fork can be an effective tool for eating both 

^ This ought not to be so surprising because in ancient Rome, the fork too was a kitchen tool. 
Table forks were not introduced to Europe until the fourteenth century, and the earlier table 
forks were two-pronged, like those used in the Roman kitchen, rather than three- or four- 
pronged as we see today. Shu Tassei, Chugoku no Shokubunka (Food culture in China) 
(Tokyo: Sogensha, 1989), 125-131; and Giblin, From Hand to Mouth, 45-56. 

^ Wang Renxiang, “Shaozi, chazi, kuaizi: Zhongguo jinshi fangshi de kaoguxue yanjiu” 
(Spoon, fork, and chopsticks: an archaeological study of the eating method in ancient 
China), Xun’gen (Root searching), 10 (1997), 12-19. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

vegetables - such as a tossed salad - and meat, his statement about the 
culinary habits of the ancient Chinese (and Asians) is supported by both 
archaeological finds and historical studies. Not unexpectedly, the type of 
food people eat determines the eating tools employed. There is good reason 
to believe that the invention of utensils was related to one’s desire to cook 
and eat food. That the Chinese - past and present - use chopsticks as both a 
cooking and feeding tool offers a good example of this phenomenon. 

In the development of human civilization, if one’s ability to control fire 
constituted an epoch-making achievement, then the use of fire for cooking 
marked another. In his survey of the history of food, Felipe Fernandez- 
Armesto considers the invention of cooking the very first revolution 
humans made regarding their changing eating habits.*^ Likewise, eating 
cooked food, Harald Briissow reckons, enabled Homo erectus to become 
Homo sapiens: the habit of eating cooked food “not only contribute[d] 
substantially to food safety but it also reduced the advantage of big teeth.” 
Besides the nutritional benefits for the development of the brain, “cooked 
food requires much less cutting, tearing, and grinding than raw food,” 
hence the reduction of tooth size among Homo sapiens!^ 

Eating cooked food, of course, does not necessarily mean eating hot 
food. But if one intends to eat food hot, then using instruments becomes a 
necessity, a point already made in the Introduction. Specifically, spoons 
and chopsticks were invented and adopted in ancient China because the 
people desired to eat hot food without scalding their hands. With an 
implement, the Chinese could taste and eat food hot; the latter has become 
an entrenched dining habit from ancient times to the present. While enter- 
taining their guests, many Chinese today prepare several dishes to show their 
hospitality. But they usually would not, observes Zhao Rongguang, an 
expert on Chinese culinary culture, cook them before the guests’ arrival 
because the host wants his/her guests to eat food hot, “right off the grill,” 
or chengre chi (lit. to eat while it is hot), as the common Chinese phrase 
goes.^^ By comparison, in parts of the world where people traditionally use 

* Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Food: A History (London: Macmillan, 2001), 1-24. 

^ Harald Briissow, The Quest for Food: A Natural History of Eating (New York: Springer, 
2007), 608. 

Lynn White, the historian who observed the different dining methods around the world, 
also believed that utensils are adopted because one intends to handle hot food. “Some 
Reflections on the Technology of Eating,” New York Times, July 17, 1983, A-zz. 

Zhao Rongguang, “Zhu yu Zhonghua minzu yinshi wenhua” (Chopsticks and Chinese 
food and drink culture), Nongye kaogu (Agricultural archaeology), 2 (1997), 225-235. 
This phrase has become a common expression of the Chinese while treating their guests 
to a meal. A famous example is that when Henry Kissinger accompanied Richard Nixon 

why chopsticks? Their origin and original function 


their hand to transfer food, it is not customary to eat food hot. South and 
Southeast Asians, for instance, often prefer meals at room temperature, as 
do the people in the Middle East.^^ And though some have turned to 
utensils on certain occasions, in South Asia, using the hand to move food 
has been a long tradition well into this era. Consequently, climate and 
ecology likely played a part in how a particular food culture developed. 

From the Neolithic Age, China’s political and culture center was located 
in North China, whose climate may be described as arid or semi-arid; the 
winter being cold, while the rest of the year is dry, except in the summer. This 
climate might have contributed to the abovementioned Chinese preference 
for eating hot and juicy food, cooked either by boiling or by stewing. The 
great number of bronze - as well as pottery - vessels from Shang China and 
their shapes and sizes helped shed light on how the early Chinese prepared 
and transported food. The most common food vessels in the Shang were 
ding (tripod or quadripod), li (tripod with hollow legs), zeng (steamer), fu 
(cauldron) and yan (steamer). As their names indicate, these vessels were 
for boiling, stewing and steaming. If these were the primary ways of 
cooking, then utensils (ladles, spoons and chopsticks) might be quite 
useful, even essential, to mix, turn and stir the foodstuffs cooked in these 
vessels, as some of them are quite large in size. Once the cooking was done, 
utensils were again needed to serve the cooked food. Chopsticks might not 
be the most convenient tool to serve food, but they were quite useful in 
checking, stirring and tasting the food during cooking and, of course, eating 
it afterwards. Another use of sticks in the kitchen was to employ them as 
pokers or tongs for arranging the firewood underneath these vessels. 
Referred to as “fire-sticks” in China and Japan (Plate 8), this is an early 
example of chopsticks used on a non-eating occasion (cf. below). 

It was said that King Zhou (1105-1046 bce), the last ruler of the Shang 
dynasty, used a pair of ivory chopsticks to eat his fancy meals. This was 
one of the earliest references, and also the most well-known, to the utensil’s 

to China in 1972,, Zhou Enlai, China’s then premier, entertained them with a state dinner 
and suggested to Kissinger that he first taste the Beijing Duck before it became cold. 
J. A. G. Roberts, China to Chinatown: Chinese Food in the West (London: Reaktion 
Books, 2002), 1 17. 

Zhao, “Zhu yu Zhonghua minzu yinshi wenhua.” In her study of the export of Chinese 
food to areas outside China, Kosegi Erino observes that the Eilipinos often like to eat 
lukewarm food. ‘“Osoroshii aji’: taishu ryori ni okeru Chuka no jyuyou sarekata: Eilipin 
to Nihon no rei wo chushinni” (“Terrible Taste”: the acceptance of Chinese food as a daily 
food in the Philippines and Japan), Di 6 jie Zhongguo yinshi wenhua xueshu yantaohui 
lunwenji (Proceedings of the 6th academic symposium of Chinese food and drink culture) 
(Taipei: Zhongguo yinshi wenhua jijinhui, 1999), 229-230. The same is true among the 
Arabs and others in the Middle East, observes Bee Wilson in his Consider the Fork, 203. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

existence in ancient China. Elephants and other large animals had once 
roamed the warmer and more humid region of North China in ancient 
times. But archaeological digs have yielded ivory chopsticks only from the 
Zhou dynasty ( 1046-25 6 bce) rather than from the Shang period. The text 
that described King Zhou’s use of ivory chopsticks also comes from the 
Zhou period, attributed to Han Feizi (281-233 bce), a philosopher and 
political strategist: 

Of old, Zhou made chopsticks of ivory. Thereby was the Viscount of Ji frightened. 
He thought: “Ivory chopsticks would not be used with earthen-wares but with 
cups made of jade or of rhinoceros horns. Further, ivory chopsticks and jade cups 
would not go with the gruel made of beans and coarse greens but with the meat of 
longhaired buffaloes and unborn leopards. Again, eaters of the meat of long-haired 
buffaloes and unborn leopards would not wear short hemp clothes and eat in a 
thatched house but would put on nine layers of embroidered dresses and move to 
live in magnificent mansions and on lofty terraces. Afraid of the ending, I cannot 
help trembling with fear at the beginning.” 

In the course of five years, Zhou made piles of meat in the form of flower-beds, 
raised roasting pillars, walked upon mounds of distiller’s grains, and looked 
over pools of wine. In consequence ended the life of Zhou. Thus, by beholding 
the ivory chopsticks, the Viscount of Ji foreknew the impending catastrophe 
of All-under-Heaven. Hence the saying: “Who beholds smallness is called 

In other words, if there were ivory chopsticks in ancient China, 
they were regarded as extremely precious, or as a symbol of an extrav- 
agant lifestyle. In King Zhou’s case, as reckoned by Han Feizi, his 
luxurious taste caused his dynasty’s fall. Indeed, Han Feizi’s allegorical 
reference to King Zhou’s flaunting his “ivory chopsticks” (xiangzhu) 
also impacted the historical memory of Koreans. The scholars in 
Joseon Korea (1392-1897) - the period which witnessed a high level 
of Chinese influence in the Korean Peninsula - considered King Zhou’s 
use of ivory chopsticks a stigma, symbolizing a profligate, decadent 
lifestyle and wicked, corrupt government.’"* 

Paradoxically, ivory chopsticks became a symbol of lavishness - and 
thus more desirable - unlike other types in early China, which were made 

Han Feizi, Han Feizi, “Yulao” (Illustrations of Lao Zi’s teachings), translations, with mod- 
ifications, see wwwz.iath. Virginia. edu/saxon/servlet/SaxonServlet?source=xwomen/ 

A search in the Database of Korean Classics ( 
jsp) yields fourteen mentions of xiangzhu appearing in official histories and other writings 
from the Joseon dynasty. 

why chopsticks? Their origin and original function 


of less precious materials. Save for Koreans’ preference for metal chop- 
sticks, implements of wood and bamboo have continued more or less 
to this day in the chopsticks cultural sphere. However, archaeological 
digs so far have not yielded many bamboo wooden chopsticks in ancient 
China. One pair of bamboo chopsticks was uncovered in the Tomb of 
Marquis Yi of Hubei in 1978. About 37-38 cm long and i. 8-2.0 cm wide 
and dated c. mid-fifth century bce, the chopsticks were connected at one 
end, thus looking more like pincers.^’ From the same region of Dangyang, 
Hubei, another pair, about 18.5 cm long and composed of two separate 
sticks, was discovered, dating to the fourth century bce.^'^ More quantities 
of bamboo or wooden chopsticks were found in the Han period (206 bce 
to 220 ce), which will be discussed in the next chapter. The archaeological 
scarcity of bamboo and wooden chopsticks may be explained by the fact 
that they decay much more easily than those made of bones, ivory, rhi- 
noceros horn and metals (bronze, copper, gold, silver and iron). 

Yet, historical texts from the Zhou to the Han period offer clear 
evidence that bamboo and wood were the primary materials with which 
chopsticks were made in early China. All the Chinese characters standing 
for chopsticks, written either as ^ and ffi (both pronounced zhu), or 
and (both pronounced jia), found in these texts have either the bamboo 
or wood radicals, suggesting their absolute popularity as chopsticks ma- 
terials. The pictography of these characters also tells us a good deal about 
the use of chopsticks and their status as a tool. The first zhu contains the 
meaning of “something bamboo” whereas the second zhu suggests that it 
is a supplementary/assistant tool made of bamboo. The two jia likewise 
show that chopsticks, like pincers, were applied to clutch and hold food- 
stuffs. Despite the dearth of strong archaeological evidence, all these 
characters, with their bamboo and wood radicals, clearly reveal that like 
today, earlier chopsticks were made of more accessible and less expensive 
materials such as wood and bamboo, rather than ivory, gold and bronze. 

The frequency with which chopsticks appear in these texts suggests that 
the utensil had become commonly used among the Chinese. Due to their 
ubiquity, chopsticks were referenced conveniently to make a point, such as 
the case of Han Feizi’s discussion of the alleged role ivory chopsticks 
played in the downfall of the Shang. In the Xunzi, attributed to Xun Zi 

Mukai & Hashimoto, Hashi, 3-4. It is worth noting that pincer-like chopsticks have also 
been found in ancient Japan, though from a later period. 

See Zhou Xinhua, Tiaodingji (Collection of food essays) (Hangzhou: Hangzhou chu- 
banshe, 2005), 75. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

(340-Z45 bce), a contemporary of Han Feizi, chopsticks are further used 
to help illustrate the importance of “Dispelling Obsession” (one of the 
themes in the book). Xun Zi states: 

If you look up at a forest from the foot of a hill, the biggest trees appear no taller 
than chopsticks, and yet no one hoping to find chopsticks is likely to go picking 
among them. It is simply that the height obscures their actual dimensions.'^ 

This passage indicates that it was commonplace for people to break off 
twigs from lower parts of the tree and turn them into chopsticks. Indeed, 
according to Chinese legends, chopsticks were first made by Da Yu, 
founder of the Xia dynasty (2100-1600 bce), in exactly this way. As he 
was in a hurry to fight the Flood, by which he would be selected as the 
ruler. Da Yu supposedly seized a pair of twigs to help down his meal. 
Although a fairytale, it illustrates that chopsticks indeed could be easily 
made with makeshift materials. A similar account occurred several millen- 
nia later, when the ruling Qing court ( 1 644-191 1 ) was defeated by Western 
powers in 1900. Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908), the dynasty’s then 
de facto ruler, fled Beijing. In her escape, while passing a village, she was 
presented with a bowl of porridge. Unable to find her utensils, a servant 
in her entourage made a pair of makeshift chopsticks using two small 
sorghum stalks with which the Dowager managed to finish her meal.'*^ 
Thanks to the ease of making chopsticks, the Empress Dowager was saved 
from an otherwise awkward moment. The Empress’s embarrassment would 
have been due to the fact that it had long been a tradition for the Chinese to 
eat food with utensils. 

It is difficult to pin down the exact time when chopsticks were adopted 
widely by the Chinese as an eating utensil. Given the recurrent mentions of 
chopsticks in various texts from the Warring States period (475-221 bce), 
one might reasonably guess that the utensil had become commonly used in 
those centuries. Having drawn on the readings of those texts, Ota Masako, 
a Japanese scholar who wrote a detailed study of the origin of chopsticks 
in ancient China, agrees that it was during the late Zhou, or between the 
sixth and third centuries bce, that using spoons and chopsticks gradually 
became habitual among the Chinese.'®* If so, this transition seemed to take 
a long time to complete. Eor historical texts show that long after the utensil 

Xun Zi, Hsiin Tzu: Basic Writings^ trans. Burton Watson (New York: Columbia 
University Press, 1963), 134. 

The story derives from Wu Yong, Gengzi xishou congtan (The flight of the Qing court) 
(Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2009). 

Ota, Hashi no genryu o saguru, 1-19. 

why chopsticks!' Their origin and original function 


had been invented and adopted into daily use, the early Chinese continued 
using their hands to convey food. The Classic of Rites (Liji), a compendium 
of rituals and etiquette for the upper social class, contains important 
information on this transitional process. It is generally believed that the 
Classic was first compiled by Confucius and his disciples in the late Zhou 
and continuously edited and annotated by Confucian scholars through 
the Han dynasty. Two dining instructions in the Classic of Rites deserve 
special attention: 

When eating with others from the same dishes, one should not try to eat [hastily] to 
satiety. When eating with them from the same dish of the fan, one should not have 
to wash his hands. 

Do not roll fan into a ball; do not bolt down the various dishes; do not swill 
down [the soup]. Do not make a noise in eating; do not crunch the bones with the 
teeth; do not put back fish you have been eating; do not throw the bones to the 
dogs; do not snatch [at what you want]. Do not spread out fan [to cool]; do not use 
chopsticks in eating millet [emphasis added]. Do not [try to] gulp down soup with 
vegetables in it, nor add condiments to it; do not keep picking the teeth, nor swill 
down the sauces. If a guest adds condiments, the host will apologize for not having 
had the soup prepared better. If he swills down the sauces, the host will apologize 
for his poverty. 

According to the first quote, fan, or cooked grain, was to be taken by hand, 
not by a utensil, since the first sentence of the second quote also states “Do 
not roll fan into a ball.” Obviously, one can only roll it with the hand. But 
in this regard, why should one not wash one’s hands, as instructed by the 
first quote? Zheng Xuan (127-200), a prominent Confucian scholar of the 
Han period, when Confucianism became a form of learning, offered his 
explanation, which was agreed with by Kong Yingda (574-648), another 
renowned expert on Confucian teaching in the Tang dynasty. Zheng and 
Kong both believed that instead of asking one not to wash one’s hands, the 
Classic of Rites actually meant that one should carry fan in dry and clean 
hands, not rub off dirt, sweat and water from the hands in front of guests, 
lest such behavior affect their appetite. 

A more intriguing issue, relevant to the original function of chopsticks, 
is why the Classic of Rites teaches one to use hands to carry fan, but not 
chopsticks. In other words, why did the early Chinese use both fingers and 

Liji {Classic of rites) - “Quli I” (Summary of the rules of property part i), CTP, 47 & 48. 
But in more recent years, scholars have challenged this interpretation. See 
Wang Renxiang, Wanggu de ziwei: Zhongguo yinshi de lishi yu wenhua (Tastes of 
yore: history and culture of Chinese foods and drinks) (Ji’nan: Shandong huabao 
chubanshe, 2006), 47-51. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

utensils to consume meals? While the question deserves some explanation, 
one may say at this juncture that it is common to see this mixed use (fingers 
and utensils) in many cultures, even today. For example, while Europeans, 
probably in the fourteenth century, began conveying meals with utensils, 
they used their fingers to transport certain types of food as the occasion 
demanded, as is still done today. The term “finger food” in English is a case 
in point. That “finger food” covers a wide variety (ranging from miniature 
pies, sausage rolls, sausages on sticks, cheese and olives on sticks, to 
chicken drumsticks or wings, miniature quiches, samosas, sandwiches 
and asparagus) shows that the custom of using the hand during meals in 
the West is not only viable but also popular. In addition, it is commonplace 
for most peoples in the world to bring bread to their mouth with the hand, 
even on formal occasions. The people in the chopsticks cultural sphere, 
indeed, might be an exception in that most of them nowadays are accus- 
tomed to using a utensil to eat. They tend to only use fingers to eat snacks 
such as nuts (e.g. peanuts), even though many of them are skillful enough 
to accomplish such tasks with chopsticks. 

In other words, whether one employs one’s fingers or a utensil to 
consume a meal often depends on the type of food one eats. In ancient 
China, chopsticks were not used to transfer millet. But why? From the 
context, one can tell that millet was a type of fan. Was millet the only fan 
consumed at the time? It seems not, for in early Chinese historical texts 
from the Zhou period, there are terms like baigu (hundred grains), jiugu 
(nine grains), liugu (six grains) and the most common, wugu (five grains). 
These terms clearly suggest that as a cooked grain, fan could be made of 
other cereals. What were they? 

A famous reference to the “five grains” is found in the Analects, a text in 
which Confucius’ disciples recorded his words and deeds. It reads as follows: 

Zi Lu [a disciple of Confucius], following the Master, happened to fall behind, when 
he met an old man, carrying across his shoulder on a staff a basket for weeds. Zi Lu 
said to him, “Have you seen my master, sir?” The old man replied, “Your four limbs 
are unaccustomed to toil; you cannot distinguish the five kinds of grain - who is your 
master?” With this, he planted his staff in the ground, and proceeded to weed. 

However, the Analects does not specify what was included in the “five 
grains.” “Five grains” also appears several times in the Classic of Rites and 
the Rites of Zhou (Zhouli), another important ritual text from the Zhou 
times, but again with no taxonomic classification. About a century or so 
later, Mencius (372-289 bce), a leading Confucian of the age, vaguely 
mentions “five grains” in the Mencius: “The Minister of Agriculture 

why chopsticks!' Their origin and original function 


taught the people to sow and reap, cultivating the five kinds of grain. When 
the five kinds of grain were brought to maturity, the people all obtained a 

Efforts to define the “five grains” were made first in the Han. The 
Han dynasty was founded on the ruins of the Qin dynasty (221-206 
bce) that had ended the Warring States period of the late Zhou and unified 
China proper (centering on North China) in 221 bce. However, the Han 
definitions of the “five grains” were inconsistent. In his explanation of 
the “five grains” in the Mencius, for example, Zhao Qi (c. 108-201), the 
leading Han commentator on the Mencius, stated that they comprised 
“rice, foxtail millet (Setaria italica), broomcorn millet (Panicum milia- 
ceum), wheat, and legumes.” By comparison, in annotating the ritual 
texts like the Rites of Zhou and the Classic of Rites, Zheng Xuan, 
Zhao’s contemporary whom we mentioned above, believed that the “five 
grains” referred instead to “hemp, broomcorn millet, foxtail millet, wheat, 
and beans.” Zheng here substituted hemp (ma) for rice. While hemp was a 
fiber crop, its seeds were edible and indeed were eaten by the early Chinese 
in the north and northwest where Zheng spent his life.^^ But when explain- 
ing the term “six grains” in the Rites of Zhou, Zheng Xuan did not include 
hemp among them, causing more confusion. Some modern scholars thus 
have questioned Zheng Xuan’s definition. They have argued that even if 
rice were not part of the “five grains,” the word ma would not refer to 
hemp, but possibly to sesame, which too was written and pronounced ma 
in Chinese. As a Central Asian crop, sesame entered China via the north- 
west regions in Zheng’s time.^^ 

Despite the variation, it remains clear that millet was a main cereal crop 
in North China, in addition to wheat, legumes and perhaps also rice. 

Mencius, The Works of Mencius, 251. 

Cf. He Julian, Tianshan jiayan: Xiyu yinshi wenhua zonghengtan (Dining on Mt. Tianshan: 
discussions of food cultures in the Western regions) (Lanzhou: Lanzhou daxue chubanshe, 
2011), 58, ■which discusses how hemp seeds were eaten in Turpan, or modern Xinjiang, in 
ancient times. 

N. A., Xianqin pengren shiliao xuanzhu (Annotated pre-Qin historical sources of culinary 
practices) (Beijing: Zhongguo shangye chubanshe, 1986), 58. 

Xu Hairong, Zhongguo yinshishi (A history of Chinese food and drink culture) (Beijing: 
Huaxia chubanshe, 1999), vol. 2, 15. In modern Chinese, sesame is called zhima. Shinoda 
Osamu, a Japanese scholar of Chinese food history, notes that “five grains” appeared most 
often in Chinese texts because of the Daoist concept of “five elements/phases,” which made 
“five grains” more popular than the “six grains” or “nine grains.” In other words, “five 
grains” was a figurative term, defying a definitive taxonomy. Shinoda Osamu, Zhongguo 
shiwushi yanjiu (Studies of Chinese food), trans. Gao Guilin, Sue Laiyun 6c Gao Yin 
(Beijing: Zhongguo shangye chubanshe, 1987), 6-7. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

Millet, especially the foxtail millet, soybeans and rice are believed to have 
been first cultivated in China. Rice, or Oryza sativa (Asian rice), was long 
believed to be indigenous to South and Southeast Asia until the recent 
archaeological excavation in Diaotonghuan Cave in South China found 
the earliest domesticated rice remains, dating as far back as loooo and 
9000 BCE. Others might be imports - wheat is native to Central Asia but 
entered China during the Bronze Age, if not earlier, for its character 
appeared in the inscriptions on the bronze vessels of the Shang dynasty.^'’ 
In addition to Diaotonghuan, located in modern Jiangxi Province, 
the archaeological site in Hemudu of Zhejiang Province had rice remains 
that were dated around 8000 bce. Then in Longqiuzhuang of Jiangsu 
Province, where the first bone chopsticks surfaced, fossilized rice deposits, 
dated between 6500 and 5500 bce, were also evident. These archaeolog- 
ical discoveries prove that South China, or the regions of the Yangzi River 
with plenty of rainfall, is the origin of Asian rice cultivation. But rice was 
mainly, and remains so to this day, a southern crop in China, hence Zheng 
Xuan, a northerner, excluded it in defining the “five grains.” 

As a cereal, millet’s popularity is well documented. The Classic of Odes, 
arguably the oldest literary source from ancient China that has survived, 
describes millet, the foxtail, the broomcorn and other varieties, a total of 
thirty-seven times, making it the most mentioned cereal crop in the text. 
For example: 

The Descendant’s stacks 

Are high as cliffs, high as hills. 

We shall need thousands of carts. 

Shall need thousands of coffers 

For broomcorn and foxtail millet, rice and spiked millet.’’’^ 

In fact, the Chinese god of agriculture was called Houji, or Lord Millet. The 
Classic of Odes recorded a poem dedicated to Houji, which reads: 

... He planted the yellow crop . . . 

It nodded, it hung . . . 

The black millet, the double-kernelled. 

Millet pink-sprouted and white. 

Francesca Bray, Science and Civilization in China: Biology and Biological Technology. 
Parti, Agriculture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), vol. 6, pt. 2, 434-449; 

Longqiuzhuang yizhi kaogudui, Longqiuzhuang: Jianghuai dongbu xinshiqi shidai yizhi 
fajue baogao, 440-463. 

Bray, Science and Civilization in China, vol. 6, pt. 1, 435. 

why chopsticks^ Their origin and original function 


Millet was also the most highly regarded grain food of the age. When 
invited to a banquet, it was said, Confucius decided to eat the millet before 
anything else, even though the host had actually intended him to use the 
millet only to clean the skin of a peach. Confucius’ explanation was that 
“millet is the most noble among the five grains and in sacrifices to the 
ancestors it is an offering of supreme standing.” By comparison, he said, 
“Among the six kinds of fruits, however, the peach is the lowest sacrificial 

Millet was so important and popular in ancient China with reason: 
compared with other crops, it was most dry and drought-resistant, well 
suited to the northern Chinese climate in the reaches of the Yellow River. 
Indeed, although millet might originally have grown in semi-tropical areas 
such as South China and Southeast Asia, it is almost certain that it first 
became domesticated in North China. Ping-ti Ho, an expert on early 
Chinese agriculture, has argued strongly that millet is native to the region, 
or the high and low grounds around the Wei and Yellow Rivers which 
he calls “the loess” and identifies as the cradle of Chinese Neolithic 
civilization. K. C. Chang (193 i-zooi), the late professor of archaeology 
and anthropology at Harvard who edited the first study of Chinese food 
culture in English, also stated that species of foxtail millet (Setaria italica) 
“grew natively in north China and were utilized by the Chinese from the 
Neolithic period to the Chou [Zhou].”^' Since the early twentieth century, 
archaeological excavations in the region, such as from the Yangshao 
Neolithic cultural site in Banpo, Xi’an, have yielded many samples of millet 

There was a wide variety of millet cultivated in ancient China. In the 
Essential Techniques for the Peasantry (Qimin yaoshu), a key text on 
Chinese agriculture written by Jia Sixie (c. 386-543), there is a detailed 
description of the variety of millets grown at the time: 

There are all sorts of millet: they ripen at different times, they vary in height and 
yield, in the strength of their straw, in flavour, and in the ease with which they 
shed their grain. (The varieties that ripen early have short stems and give a good 
yield; those which ripen late have longer stems and yield less grain. The strong- 
strawed varieties belong to the class of short yellow millets, and those with 
weaker straws belong to the class of tall green, white and black millets. Those 

Han Feizi, Han Feizi jishi (“waichushuo zuoxia”), quoted in Roel Sterckx, Food, Sacrifice, 
and Sagehood in Early China (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 12. 

Ping-ti Ho, “The Loess and the Origin of Chinese Agriculture,” American Historical 
Review, 75:1 (October 1969), 1-36. 

Chang, “Ancient China,” Food in Chinese Culture, 26. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

which yield a light crop are delicious but shed their grain easily; the large yielders 
are unpalatable but productive.)’^ 

The proliferation of millet cultivation was also shown by the fact that in 
Chinese writing, millet was referred to by multiple terms. The most 
common ones, appearing in Shang oracle-bone inscriptions and the 
historical documents from the Zhou period, were shu, su, ji and Hang, 
though the character Hang could also refer to sorghum at a later time. 
But what varieties of millet they actually stand for - it is generally 
believed that shu refers to broomcorn millet whereas su to foxtail millet - 
and how they relate to one another (e.g. whether or not su and ji both 
stand for foxtail millet) remain uncertain.” Confusing as it is in nomen- 
clature, the proliferation of millet in terminology attests to the crop’s 
popularity. Indeed, all evidence points to millet being a dominant crop in 
North China for at least a millennium, or from antiquity to about the 
eighth century. 

The above discussion gives us enough reason to believe that the fan 
mentioned in the Classic of Rites was most likely millet, alone or mixed 
with beans, wheat and other cereals.’'’ Still, the question remains: why 
could not one eat millet with chopsticks? The answer seems to have 
much to do with how millet was (is) cooked. From ancient times to the 
present, most Chinese have usually prepared millet either by boiling or 
by steaming, due to its small grains (smaller than rice). Once heated, they 
stick together rather tightly, making it hard for air to pass through them. 
Consequently, millet cannot be cooked like rice - which is brought to the 
boil by applying high heat to the right amount of water, and then using 
low heat to simmer it until the rice becomes soft and fluffy. Had millet 
been cooked this way, or without sufficient water, the grains at the 
bottom of the pot would have been burnt while those in the middle 
would remain undercooked. 

In classical Chinese, steamed millet seems referred to more as fan 
whereas boiled millet - porridge or gruel - was zhou. This distinction 
was already drawn in Zhou literature and reiterated from the Han 
onward. “It was the Yellow Emperor [the legendary progenitor of the 

Bray, Science and Civilization in China, vol. 6, pt. 2, 441. 

Ibid., 440. The Hang millet was known for its large grain. It might be equivalent to German 
millet in European languages. 

A keyword search in the texts from the Zhou to the Tang in ZJGK finds that shufan 
(broomcorn millet) and sufan (foxtail millet) appear ninety-two and seventy-three times, 
respectively, whereas maifan (wheat steamed whole) appears 107 times, showing that 
millet was the staple. 

why chopsticks^ Their origin and original function 


Chinese people],” so says a late Zhou text, “who began to steam grains 
into fan as well as boil them into zhou."^^ The character zhou appears 
in Shang and Zhou oracle-bone and bronze inscriptions whereas fan is 
mentioned later in Zhou historical texts onwards. That zhou preceded 
fan suggests that boiling was perhaps a more popular cooking method. 
Studies of Shang bronze vessels also find that boilers, cauldrons and 
tripods were invented before steamers. Modern scholars believe that 
the designs of the steamers, such as zeng and yan, were an improvement 
on the fu, or the cauldron, a widely found boiler among Shang and 
Zhou bronze and pottery vessels. Both the zeng and yan have two parts; 
the top part holds the food while the bottom is for applying heat and 
producing steam. That is, these steamers were made by simply adding a 
steamer basket onto the cauldron. Historical records reveal that the 
zeng, which was small in size, was mainly used for steaming grain 

It is quite possible that when the Classic of Rites instructed one to eat fan 
with one’s hands, the fan was steamed millet, but not boiled millet: 
compared with the latter, steamed millet was more solidified, allowing 
transfer by hand. Accordingly, steamed millet was less economical, as it 
took more time to cook and once ready, it was smaller in quantity. But this 
seems to fit exactly with the nature of the Classic of Rites, which was 
written mainly for the upper class. By contrast, the ordinary people prob- 
ably could only afford boiled millet (zhou), porridge or gruel (with legu- 
minous seeds and/or vegetables), to fill up their stomachs. But on festive 
occasions, common people also liked to prepare grain food by steaming, 
for making cakes and buns - still a practice in many Asian food cultures. 

Using hands to convey food appears easy, but it actually requires more 
etiquette. South Asians, for example, mostly use fingers to eat, reflected in 
several dining taboos in their culture, most of which aim to prevent messy 
dining and disgusting others. Thus, the Classic of Rites in ancient China 

The quote was said to be from Zhoushu, or Yi Zhoushu, which was possibly from the late 
Zhou, or the Warring States, period. It was quoted by Gao Cheng, a Song scholar, in his 
Shiwu jiyuan (Origin of things), juan 9, ZJGK, 208. But Wang Chong, a Han philosopher 
in his Lunheng (Discussive weighing), writing in the first century, also used the phrase “to 
steam grain into fan,'" Lunheng - “Jiyan” (Auspicious portents), juan 2, ZJGK, 10. 

Xu, Zhongguo yinshishi, 5 1-5 5 . That zeng was traditionally used to steam grain, such as 
millet and wheat, was recorded in texts. See Wang, Lunheng - “Liangzhi” (The valuation 
of knowledge): “The ripened grain is called su [foxtail millet]. After grinding it on the 
mortar, then one steams it in zeng on fire to make it eatable.” Juan 12, ZJGK, 121. Tuo 
Tuo, Songshi (Song history) - “Hu Jiaoshiu” (Biography of Hu Jiaoxiu) recorded: “there 
was steamed wheat in the zeng” HDWZK, 11677. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

gave such meticulous and fastidious instructions about how one should use 
one’s hands to handle cooked (steamed) millet. It is believed that as ritual 
experts, Confucius and his disciples mostly used hands to eat their meals, 
knowing how to do it properly. In the age of Confucius, aristocrats seemed 
also accustomed to using hands to bring food to the mouth. A famous 
example is Prince Song of Zheng State around the early seventh century 
BCE; he is remembered in history for habitually moving his fingers when- 
ever he saw an exotic and enticing dish.^^ In the Chinese language, the 
index finger is known as the “food finger,” or shizhi, reflecting the residual 
influence of the ancient dining custom. 

But for many others, it might have been more convenient to use a 
utensil, as they were mostly eating boiled grains anyway. In the Guanzi, 
attributed to Guan Zhong (c. 723/716-645 bce), a political strategist, 
advice is given that when eating in front of a teacher, a pupil should, 
among others, use hands only to carry the grain, but not other foods. 
That is, since a youngster might not have mastered the techniques of using 
his hands to convey food, it was better for him to limit their use, lest his 
improper method be chastised by the teacher. 

The Classic of Rites does not specify how one eats zhou, or boiled millet. 
But Kong Yingda, the Confucian annotator, believed that instead of hands, 
one was supposed to employ a spoon. While annotating the sentence 
“do not use chopsticks in eating millet,” he stated that the Classic 
recommended one use a spoon, or hi. Living in a much later time than the 

The story is found in the Zuo Commentary (Zuozhuan), a historical text emerging 
around the same time as did the Classic of Rites and the Book of Etiquette and 
Ceremonial. It records that during the fourth year of Duke Xuan {605 bce), someone 
from the Chu State (located in the Middle Yangzi River region, or in South China) 
presented a turtle to Duke Ling of Zheng State, just at the time when Prince Song and 
his friend Zijia came to pay the Duke a visit. Seeing the turtle. Prince Song’s index 
finger moved and he joked that: “If you see it move again another time, it means that I 
shall taste something special.” However, after the turtle was cooked into a stew, Duke 
Ling invited all the others to taste it, except Prince Song. Humiliated, Prince Song went 
up and put his index finger in the tripod, tasted its soup, and stormed out. His act 
angered Duke Zheng who vowed that he would kill Prince Song. However, a year later, 
it was Prince Song and Zijia who conspired to have Duke Zheng murdered. Intriguing 
and dramatic as it was, the story has evolved into a proverb/phrase in later ages. Prince 
Song’s decision to dip his finger into the tripod and taste the food is abbreviated as 
ranzhi yuding (lit. to soil one’s finger in the tripod), or simply ranzhi, which means that 
one is not supposed to meddle in things without invitation. Zuo Qiuming, Chunqiu 
zuozhuan (Spring and Autumn Annals and Zuo commentary) - “Xuan’gong sinian” 
(Prince Xuan, 4th year), CTP, 2. 

Guanzi, Guanzi - “Dizi zhi” (Duties of the student): “Don’t use the hand to eat gengf’ 
CTP, 4. 

why chopsticks^ Their origin and original function 


first writing of the Classic of Rites, Kong noted that millet was cooked in 
two ways: steaming and boiling, and that millet cooked the former way was 
eaten with hands and the latter by a spoon, for it was soggy.^^ Of course, 
one could eat watery food - e.g. porridge - with the aid of chopsticks. To do 
this, however, one needs to raise the bowl to the mouth and gulp down the 
food, using chopsticks to shovel it when necessary. Needless to say, this 
dining behavior was far from refined, resulting in the Classic of Rites ruling 
against it. Undoubtedly, it had been done before (hence the injunction), just 
as some still do it today. All the same, a spoon is a better tool for eating 
millet porridge more elegantly, by scooping the food from the bowl, without 
the need to raise the bowl to the mouth. 

People turned to utensils, therefore, for several reasons: necessity, ex- 
pedience and modishness. In ancient China, without a doubt, boiling was a 
more popular way of cooking than steaming, as it was more economical 
and convenient. Archaeologists have uncovered more boilers than steam- 
ers among the bronze and pottery vessels from the Shang through the Han 
dynasties. They have also discovered that in addition to fu (cauldron) and 
ding (tripod), //', a smaller and more personal tripod, was another common 
item. Compared with the bronze ding, which was used mainly to cook 
meat, li were mostly made of pottery. Given its small size, archaeologists 
believe, li was used by individuals to prepare cereal, or millet. Since the 
early twentieth century, a great many li pottery fragments have surfaced in 
Yinxu, Henan, the ruins of the Shang dynasty capital. These finds suggest 
that li was a popular cooking utensil among the commoners, and is further 
proof that more people boiled millet into porridge in early China. 

According to historical records, boiled millet took various forms, 
depending on how watery it was and whether other ingredients were used. 
It ranged from zhan, a thick gruel, to zhou or yu, both meaning a thin 

Kong explained that since chopsticks were not recommended for eating millet, then one 
should use a spoon. Wang Renxiang, a modern scholar, believes that Kong Yingda 
contradicted himself by stating that in ancient China, one used hands to transport fan 
whereas here he said one should use a spoon. See Wang’s Wanggu de ziwef 50. But I do not 
see any inconsistency because steamed millet could be picked up by hands whereas boiled 
millet required with a spoon, for it was in a more liquid form. 

While eating the popular Miancha (lit. noodle tea) in modern Beijing, a millet porridge 
mixed with sesame, sesame oil and salt, it is customary and also recommended that one sip 
the liquid directly from the bowl beneath the gel formed on the top that keeps its warmth 
and taste. Using utensils would break the gel. See Cui Daiyuan, Jingweier (Beijing taste) 
(Beijing: Sanlian shudian, 2009), 71. 

Hu Zhixiang, “XianQin zhushi pengshi fangfa” (Study of the ways staple [grain] food 
was cooked in the pre-Qin period), Nongye kaogu,, 2 (1994), 214-218. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

congee. Again, the Classic of Rites records: “Zeng-zi said, ‘I have heard from 
my father that the sorrow declared in the weeping and wailing, the feelings 
expressed in the robe of sackcloth with even or with frayed edges, and the 
food of grain made thick or in congee, extend from the son of Heaven to 
all.”'*^ Besides steamed millet, which was the noble’s and festive food, how 
one cooked and ate millet might well have registered class differences: the 
thick porridge was possibly more for the rich whereas the thin one was for 
the less affluent. But this difference could not be absolute, for porridge was 
(is) a suitable food for the dry and cold weather of North China. 

As boiled grain was most common and best eaten with a spoon, it 
became the primary utensil in ancient China. By comparison, chopsticks 
seemed secondary, as they were not supposed to carry cooked grain. In 
early Chinese, one character for chopsticks was zhu ffi, which had the 
bamboo radical on top and the word “assistance/help/supplement” at 
the bottom, revealing the supplementary role of chopsticks. The Classic 
of Rites specifies the exact - and only? - occasion for one to use chop- 
sticks: “If the stew be made with vegetables, chopsticks should be used; 
but not if there be no vegetables. Stew - geng in Chinese - is made by 
first boiling the ingredients in water. Like boiled millet porridge, a stew 
was cooked in various ways in China. It could be a meat stew with a thick 
sauce or a thin soup with only vegetables. The character geng it (with the 
lamb radical) indicates that in its original form, geng must have contained 
lamb or mutton. The Erya, the oldest Chinese dictionary, explains that 
“meat (rou) could be called geng.” Besides lamb, ingredients in making a 
geng also included beef, pork, chicken, duck and dog. These varieties 
were indicated with a prefix, such as yanggeng (lamb stew), quangeng 
(dog stew) and tungeng (pork stew). There was also xinggeng, which was 
believed to be a meatless, vegetarian stew or broth. Yet a meat geng might 
contain vegetables and other spices for better taste, making chopsticks a 
useful tool in eating many types of geng.‘^‘^ 

These many varieties suggest that geng was a popular dish in ancient 
China. Indeed, the Classic of Rites observes: “geng (stew) and fan (grain) 

L// 7 - “Tangongl,” CTP, i4.Similarly, Mencius also confirmed the popularity of porridge: 
“The ceremonies to be observed by the princes I have not learned, but I have heard these 
points: that the three years’ mourning, the garment of coarse cloth with its lower edge even, 
and the eating of congee, were equally prescribed by the three dynasties, and binding on all, 
from the sovereign to the mass of the people.” The Works of Mencius, 236. 

Liji- “Quli I,” CTP, 53. 

Kong Yingda explained that if the geng had no vegetables, then people could drink it 
directly. Cited and discussed in Wang, Wanggu de ziwei, 50. 

why chopsticks? Their origin and original function 


were eaten by all, from the princes down to the common people, irrespec- 
tive of status.” In other words, the early Chinese not only boiled grains 
into porridge and gruel, but they also liked to boil nongrain foods, making 
stew the most common form of cai (nongrain food). The stew’s popularity 
helped render chopsticks an important eating implement, for the Chinese 
preferred to eat food hot. Besides a large number of cauldrons and tripods, 
archaeologists have unearthed a variety of food warmers, or wending, 
among Zhou bronze and pottery vessels. These food warmers confirm 
the Chinese dietary preference. One could imagine that chopsticks were 
used to stir, mix, clasp, try and eat the contents of the vessels. Indeed, 
Chinese food scholars have postulated that it was due to the need to make 
and eat geng that chopsticks were invented, first as stir sticks and then 
chopsticks and more."^^ 

But what about in areas where millet was not the grain staple - as in 
South China? Were chopsticks only used to transport nongrain dishes? 
Actually, even in ancient times, diverse culinary traditions and food cultures 
seemingly developed on the Asian mainland. The Classic of Odes describes 
many eating occasions, as the following excerpt demonstrates: 

The five grains are heaped up six ells high, and corn of zizania set out; 

The cauldrons seethe to their brims; their blended savours yield fragrance; 

Plump orioles, pigeons, and geese, flavoured with broth of jackal’s meat; 

O soul, come back! Indulge your appetite! 

Fresh turtle, succulent chicken, dressed with a sauce of Chu; 

Pickled pork, dog cooked in bitter herbs, and zingiber-flavoured mince. 

And sour Wu salad of Artemisia, not too wet or tasteless. 

O soul, come back! Indulge in your own choice! 

Roast crane is served up, and steamed duck and boiled quails. 

Fried bream, stewed magpies, and green goose, broiled. 

O soul, come back! Choice things are spread before you. 

The four kinds of wine are all matured, not rasping to the throat; 

Clear, fragrant, ice-cooled liquor, not for base men to drink; 

And white yeast is mixed with must of Wu to make the clear Chu wine. 

O soul, come back and do not be afraid!’*** 

Wang Renxiang, Yinshi yu Zhongguo wenhua (Foods and drinks in Chinese culture) 
(Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 1994), 16-17. 

Zhao, “Zhu yu Zhonghua minzu yinshi wenhua.” 

"If one intends to investigate the origin of chopsticks,” Wang Renxiang states, “one must 
study the development of stew las a popular dish].” Wang, Yinshi yu Zhongguo wenhua^ 
270. Also, Zhao, “Zhu yu Zhonghua minzu yinshi wenhua” and Hu, “XianQin zhushi 
pengshi fangfa tanxi.” 

Chang, “Ancient China,” Food in Chinese Culture, 32-33. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

Depicting a variety of foods and prevalent cooking methods, this poem 
shows that Wu and Chu cookeries were markedly different. Wu and Chu 
referred to the reaches of the Yangzi River in South China - the Chu being 
the middle part and the Wu the lower part. Yet, what was food culture 
really like in South China? Unfortunately, neither the poem, except by 
stressing its exoticness, nor most of the historical texts of the late Zhou 
period, describe it in detail. Indeed, most of the historical literature from 
ancient China surviving today was originally written, as well as annotated, 
by the people in the north, which invariably resulted in a certain bias. 

Modern archaeological and anthropological studies have shown that a 
north-south divide had already appeared in Chinese agriculture and 
agronomy from ancient days. This divide resulted from the geographical 
and ecological differences between the northern confines around the 
Yellow River and those further south around the Yangzi River. The two 
great rivers exerted a considerable influence in shaping the agriculture and 
foodways in the two regions - and respective sub-districts - throughout 
Chinese history. In Joseph Needham’s magisterial Science and Civilization 
in China, contributor Francesca Bray offers a succinct observation: “we 
have distinguished two main agricultural traditions in China, the dry-cereal 
cultivation of the North and the wet-rice agriculture of the South, each 
characterised by distinctive crops, tools and field-patterns . . 

If rice cultivation distinguishes the agriculture of South China from that 
of North China, this is not manifested in extant historical literature. In 
such ancient texts as the Classic of Odes, rice is mentioned about a dozen 
times, much fewer than the appearances of millet. But in South China, rice 
seems to have been the staple grain from antiquity. The archaeological 
finds from Diaotonghuan, Hemudu and Sanxingdui, Sichuan (discovered 
in the 1980s) all yielded convincing evidence that rice had long been a 
leading crop in the Yangzi River regions. Moreover, the findings there 
show that South China achieved a similar level of cultural development as 
did North China in Neolithic times. “Even the earliest cultural stratum,” 
comments Francesca Bray on the Hemudu Culture, “shows signs of con- 
siderable technological sophistication, including well-made, finely decora- 
ted pottery and complex carpentry work, and the sheer volume of the rice 
remains shows that the inhabitants were not proto-farmers but relied 
heavily on cultivated rice as a food supply. 

Since rice played such a crucial part in advancing Chinese civilization 
in the south, a brief overview of its role as a grain crop is in order. 

Bray, Science and Civilization in China, vol. 6, pt. 2, 557. 

Ibid., 485. 

why chopsticks!' Their origin and original function 


Throughout history, rice has been one of the most cultivated, as well as 
most diverse, grains. “This grain,” exclaims Margaret Visser, an award- 
winning author, “is the main sustenance of half the population of the 
earth. If at this minute some catastrophe were to kill off all the rice crops 
of the world,” she continues, “at least a billion and a half human beings 
would suffer acute hunger, and millions would die of starvation before 
anything could be done to save them.”^^ As indispensable as rice is in 
today’s world, it seems to have played an even more important role in 
pre-modern times. “For most of history - until the scientific recrafting of 
wheat strains to produce today’s staggeringly efficient varieties - rice,” 
writes food historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, 

was hors de pair the world’s most efficient food: with traditional varieties, one 
hectare of rice supports, on average, 5.63 persons, compared with 3.67 per hectare 
of wheat and 5 .06 for maize. For most of history, the rice-eating civilizations of east 
and south Asia were more populous, more productive, more inventive, more 
industrialized, more fertile in technology and more formidable in war than rivals 

This is certainly the case in China. And if millet nurtured early Chinese 
civilization in the north, rice played a similar role in developing the culture 
in the south. As time went on, rice would occupy an even greater position 
in Chinese agriculture and its food system. 

Chinese historical texts mention rice’s importance in South China. The 
Rites of Zhou, for example, acknowledges that “rice was a suitable crop” for 
both Jingzhou and Yangzhou, which were located in the middle and lower 
parts of the Yangzi River. In his Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji), Sima 
Qian (c. 145-87 bce), the great Han historian who had travelled widely 
throughout the land, concurs that “In States Chu and Yue [in the middle and 
lower parts of the Yangzi River], where land was vast and people were few, 
rice was the chief grain and fish stew the main dish [emphasis added] . ” Sima’s 
description pits the foodway of South China against North China’s. 

Was it the consumption of rice that turned the Chinese in the south to 
use chopsticks more? Archaeology seems to suggest that there might be 
some correlation, since more of these objects have surfaced in the historical 
sites of South China. Longqiuzhuang, the site of the earliest chopsticks, 
is located in Jiangsu Province, or the lower Yangzi River. And the 

Margaret Visser, Much Depends on Dinner: The Extraordinary History and Mythology, 
Allure and Obsessions, Perils and Taboos, of an Ordinary Meal (New York: Grove Press, 
1986), 155-156. 

Fernandez-Armesto, Food: A History, 105-106. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

Longqiuzhuang Culture was more closely related to those along the Yangzi 
and Huai Rivers than to those along the Yellow River. Thus, it is likely no 
coincidence that rice remains also surfaced in Longqiuzhuang. As men- 
tioned above, from the Bronze Age through the Han dynasty, the majority 
of chopsticks (bronze and bamboo) uncovered by archaeologists have been 
in southern and southwestern Chinese sites, where rice was grown more 
widely. These findings lead one to suspect that in South China, chopsticks 
would have been a more practical means of eating as opposed to northern 
traditions. That is, the people in South China possibly used chopsticks not 
only to pick out foodstuffs in a stew, they also used them to eat rice - their 
grain food.’^ 

Compared with other grains, then, cooked rice can be more easily held 
and moved in clumps by chopsticks (Plate Z5 ). One could thus speculate on 
the possible bond between eating rice and using chopsticks. Of course, rice 
is a diverse crop. The most common types consumed in East and Southeast 
Asia are the non-glutinous sinica (japonica) and indica, which are regarded 
as ordinary. The glutinous rice, known in Chinese as nuo, in Vietnamese as 
nep and in Thai as nieo, is more customarily used to make rice cakes and 
other kinds of confectionery during festivals. Both sinica/ japonica and 
indica, which have relatively translucent grains as opposed to the round 
and opaque grain of glutinous rice, have appeared in Neolithic sites across 
China proper but notably were more present along the Yangzi River. 
Among other things, the two varieties are differentiated by their ripening 
period, grain size and shape, and cooking characteristics. The sinica! 
japonica, for instance, is softer and stickier than the long-grain indica. 
Like millet, rice can be eaten whole or milled into flour: the ancient 
Chinese used both methods. 

But in contrast to millet, including its glutinous varieties, rice becomes 
much more integrated once cooked, as its larger grains allow air to pass 
through the boiling water. As a result, rice has a shorter cooking time than 

Longqiuzhuang yizhi kaogudui, Longqiuzhuang: Jianghuai dongbu xinshiqi shidai 
yizhi fajue baogao. For the nature of Longqiuzhuang Culture, see discussions in 
Zhang Jiangkai 6c Wei Jun, Xinshiqi shidai kaogu {Neolithic archaeology) (Beijing: 
Wenwu chubanshe, 2004), 173-176. Given that more chopsticks were discovered in the 
south, Shen Tao hypothesized that the utensil originated in Yunnan of Southwest China, 
which is cited, sympathetically, in Ota, Hashi no genryu o saguru^ 248-249, and Mukai & 
Hashimoto, Hashi, 4-6. 

Te-Tzu Chang, “Rice,” Cambridge World History of Food, eds. Kenneth F. Kiple & 
Kriemhild C. Ornelas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), vol. i, 149-152. 
In Chinese historical sources, sinica/japonica and indica rice are referred to as geng ® and 
xian Sflij, respectively. 

why chopsticks? Their origin and original function 


millet, whether by boiling or by steaming. Though called non-glutinous 
rice, both sinica/japonica and indica are more cohesive than millet after 
preparation, making it much easier for one to hold small chunks with 
chopsticks. Given the gluey nature of cooked rice, it would be inconvenient 
to transport it by hand like steamed millet, for its grains would stick to the 
skin. In some parts of the world where people do use their fingers to eat 
rice, a basin of water is immediately available for washing. Admittedly, 
another way to deal with the problem is to cook rice with oil; but this 
would present the nuisance of having to wipe away accumulated grease. 
Using chopsticks to eat rice, therefore, presents a solution to such incon- 
venience. Of course, even if chopsticks can deliver grains efficiently to the 
mouth, rice can stick on them, too. But it is easier to remove rice from 
chopsticks, since they are smaller and thinner in size. As time went on, they 
became pointed and polished, further eliminating such dining problems. 

However, as stated in the Introduction, both cultural and culinary 
factors play roles in determining whether or not one uses a utensil - and 
which kind - to eat a meal. Consuming rice does not necessarily mean 
having to use a utensil, nor must it be chopsticks. In Southeast Asia where 
rice has long been the staple, only the Vietnamese have used chopsticks to 
eat it; all others prefer using either their hands or a spoon and a fork. In 
Thailand, for example, where in the past rice was eaten by hand, most 
people now use a spoon to first scoop it from the bowl, and then push it 
with the back of a fork held in the other hand, before finally bringing it to 
the mouth. As for glutinous rice, which is difficult to eat with a fork and 
spoon, people usually use their right hand to take a lump and form a small 
ball, with a thumb-size indentation being made to hold sauces, condiments 
and side dishes, before placing the prepared ball into the mouth. This 
demonstrates that many ways of eating rice have developed. Using chop- 
sticks is one of them, which is adopted more because of cultural influences 
than practical needs. 

In sum, drawing on both archaeological evidence and literary sources, 
one can make some general observations about food culture in ancient 
China, in relation to the story of chopsticks. First, although eating utensils 
had been invented during the Neolithic Age, the early Chinese continued to 
eat food with their hands (though preferably only the right hand per 
custom). Indeed, this juxtaposition between using one’s hand and utensils 

See Leedom Lefferts, “Sticky Rice, Fermented Fish, and the Course of a Kingdom: 
The Politics of Food in Northeast Thailand,” Asian Studies Review^ 29 (September 
2005), 247-258. Also, Van Esterik, Food Culture in Southeast Asia^ 21. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

to convey food persisted for quite some time. Second, boiling was the most 
prevalent cooking method, followed by steaming, even though other ways 
of cooking also appeared in early China. The Chinese boiled not only 
grain, but also nongrain foods; the former took the form of porridge 
(zhou), and the latter stew (geng). These forms determined whether and 
what kind of utensils were used for eating. Third, the spoon was invented 
first in early China to consume boiled food, since it contained sufficient 
liquid. Shaped like a dagger with sharp edges, the spoon, or hi, would also 
have been useful for cutting the meat in the stew. As such, the spoon was 
the primary feeding tool, whereas chopsticks played a supplementary role. 
Their main function was to grasp vegetables in a stew or a broth, but they 
were not recommended for boiled grain food - such as millet. As for 
steamed millet, people generally used their hands instead. Thus, the orig- 
inal use of chopsticks was limited to eating cai (nongrain food), but not fan 
(grain food); the latter was and still is the main type of food consumption in 
China and elsewhere. However, in South China where chopsticks were 
introduced as a utensil, people possibly used them to eat not only nongrain 
foods, or the stew, as they were intended to, but also rice, the staple in the 
region. Since most of the historical sources come from North China, it is 
difficult to ascertain when this dining habit began; namely, how chopsticks 
became a widely used, and even the exclusive, eating implement that one 
sees in present-day Vietnam, Japan and most of China. But it certainly 
would not take long for people to discover the effectiveness of chopsticks 
in conveying cooked rice. From the Han period onward, as culinary 
traditions experienced a marked change in North and Northwest China, 
chopsticks would demonstrate even more versatility - a topic to be covered 
in the next chapter. 

See the instruction given by the Classic of Rites: “When the child was able to take its own 
food, it was taught to use the right hand.” Liji - “Neize” (The pattern of the family), CTP, 
76. For cooking methods in ancient China, see Chang, “Ancient China,” Food in Chinese 
Culture^ 31. 


Dish, rice or noodle? The changing use 
of chopsticks 

At your birth when they first hung out the bow, I was the most honored guest 
at the birthday feast. Wielding my chopsticks I ate boiled noodles, and 
composed a congratulatory poem on a heavenly unicorn. 

Liu Yuxi (772-842.) 

The discovery of a new dish does more for the happiness of mankind than the 
discovery of a star. 

Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, Physiologie du Gout (1825) 

In his masterpiece, Records of the Grand Historian, Sima Qian relates 
many fascinating episodes happening during the Han dynasty (206 bce to 
zzo Ce), a great era in early imperial China. Some of them, interestingly, 
feature chopsticks. In his biographical account of Liu Bang (256-195 bce), 
Sima records that while preparing to seize power, Liu, who grew up in 
northern Jiangsu near Longqiuzhuang and later became Emperor Gaozu 
after founding the dynasty, once considered a strategic plan by a counselor 
over a meal. But Zhang Liang (256-186 bce), his main and most trusted 
advisor, opposed it. In order to persuade Liu, Zhang borrowed several 
chopsticks and made a strong counterargument. And he prevailed in the 
end; Liu decided to adopt his plan instead.^ Sima does not tell exactly how 
Zhang used chopsticks to explain his objection. But the story has been well 
remembered in history ever since. It reveals that Liu and his staff, among 
others, used chopsticks in eating their food. 

Chopsticks appear in another biography in the Records of the Grand 
Historian. Its protagonist is Zhou Yafu (199-143 bce), a distinguished 

^ Sima, Shiji - “Liuhou shijia” (Biography of Zhang Liang), HDWZK, 2040. 



Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

and capable general under Han Emperors Wen (r. 176-157 bce) and Jing 
(r. 157-141 bce), son and grandson of Emperor Gaozu. Thanks to his 
remarkable accomplishments, Zhou became trusted by both emperors 
during most of their reigns. But in the end, perhaps due to his arrogance, 
Zhou lost Emperor Jing’s trust. Sima records an episode in which one 
day Zhou was summoned to court to dine with the Emperor and found 
a big chunk of meat in his food tray with no sliced pieces, nor chopsticks. 
He turned around asking for chopsticks, only to be mocked by the 
Emperor: “Was this treatment not good enough for you?” Eeeling insulted 
and humiliated, Zhou thanked the Emperor and left the court without 
touching the food. Seeing him leave. Emperor Jing sighed: “With that kind 
of attitude, how can you continue to be my advisor?” A few years later. 
Emperor Jing indeed found an excuse to have Zhou executed.^ 

These two stories demonstrate that by Han times, chopsticks had become 
customary. Yet two issues seem worthy of more exploration. One is that in 
both the stories, Sima Qian does not mention whether spoons were also 
used or provided. As established in the previous chapter, spoons were the 
primary eating tool among the early Chinese. The other issue is that when 
Zhou Yafu saw the uncut meat in front of him, he turned around looking 
for chopsticks, but according to the instruction of the Classic of Rites, 
chopsticks were supposed to be only used for picking up vegetables in a 
stew. The answer to the first question seems somewhat easier to find: until 
then the Chinese still used their fingers to bring some types of grain food to 
their mouths, not always using the spoon. As for the second issue, a possible 
explanation might be that the Chinese had begun using chopsticks to handle 
all nongrain foods. This chapter will discuss these two subjects - when the 
Chinese adopted the custom of eating only with utensils and when they used 
chopsticks to convey all food items in dishes - in detail, covering the period 
from the Han to the Tang dynasty (618-907). 

Over the past several decades, Chinese archaeologists have discovered a 
number of tombs from the Han period. These excavations offer valuable 
information on how the people then consumed their daily meals. The 
Mawangdui Tombs, near Changsha, capital of Hunan Province, are an 
important case. Unearthed between 1972 and 1974, the Mawangdui 
tombs consist of three, which contain three members of one family headed 
by Li Gang, the first Marquis of Dai in Changsha during 193-186 bce. 
Of the three tombs, the first tomb discovered in 1972 was the most 
spectacular because the body buried therein, identified as the Marquis’ 

^ Sima, Shiji - “Jianghou Zhou Bo shijia” (Biography of Zhou Yafu), HDWZK, 2078. 

Dish, rice or noodlef The changing use of chopsticks 43 

wife Xin Zhui - Lady Dai, who died around the age of fifty - remained 
quite well preserved. Forensic archaeologists found that Lady Dai likely 
died of a heart attack, triggered possibly by eating musk melons whose 
seeds were found in her esophagus, stomach and intestines. Equally inter- 
esting finds from the tomb were forty-eight bamboo cases and fifty-one 
pottery vessels of various types that contained a variety of foodstuffs, 
indicating that Lady Dai loved food in life. The grains found in the cases 
and vessels included rice, wheat, broomcorn millet, foxtail millet and lentil. 
Besides food containers. Lady Dai was surrounded by many lacquered 
dinnerware and drinking vessels, and on top of one lacquered bowl, lo and 
behold, lay a pair of bamboo chopsticks (Plate 7)!^ 

Besides the chopsticks, lacquered wooden spoons and ladles, which had 
an oval-shaped deep bowl and a long handle, were also uncovered in the 
tombs. The spoons look more refined whereas the chopsticks, with some 
lacquered paint, seem rather simple. Mukai Yukiko and Hashimoto 
Keiko, authors of a study of chopsticks in Japan, surmise that Lady Dai 
used the chopsticks in life, but the more delicate spoons, bowls and other 
utensils were possibly burial goods, or spiritual objects. They also suggest 
that Lady Dai may have continued the custom of eating some foods with the 
hands."^ The Mawangdui Tombs, of course, are not the only place where 
spoons, chopsticks and other utensils have surfaced together. Archaeologists 
have made similar discoveries in other Han tombs. Their being placed 
together has made scholars believe that spoons and chopsticks became 
increasingly employed as a set of tools for meals through the period.^ But 
if this were the case, the relationship between the two utensils seems still 
not as close and collaborative as that of forks and knives - one holds down 
the food and the other does the cutting. The Chinese could use only either 
one of them in conveying a meal. 

Some of the Han tombs also contained stone reliefs and painted stones 
in their chambers and passageways that portray cooking and eating 
scenes. The stone relief found in Xindu, Sichuan, for instance, depicts a 
feast scene: three men sitting on the floor with the man in the center 
holding a pair of chopsticks pointed toward the food being presented by 
the person on the left. On top of the food in the bowl held by the person 
on the left is a pair of chopsticks (Plate 4). Moreover, two additional pairs 
of chopsticks are placed on the big mat at the center of the floor. 

^ Hunan Sheng Bowuguan (Hunan Museum), Changsha Mawangdui yihao Hanmu (The 
first tomb of Mawangdui, Changsha) (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1973 )• 

Mukai & Hashimoto, HtJs/?/, 9-10. ^ Liu, Zhongguo zhu wenhuashi, 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

The famous Wuliang Shrine in Jiaxiang, Shandong, features another 
eating scene painted on the wall. Named “Xing Qu bufu” (Xing Qu 
feeding his father), the mural portrays Xing Qu, holding food with a 
pair of chopsticks in his left hand and a dipper or ladle in his right, 
presenting food to his father. A servant behind him holds another bowl 
of food, indicating more food was prepared for the father. Without 
question, this painting served to promote the Confucian ideal of filial 
piety, which the Han dynasty officially endorsed. 

These feast and feeding scenes confirm what the Records of the Grand 
Historian suggests: chopsticks were a main eating tool in the Han period. 
They also illustrate that although often buried together, chopsticks and 
spoons were not necessarily used together in conveying food. The dipper 
held by Xing Qu to feed his father could well contain the grain food for his 
father to grasp with his own hand and deliver to his mouth, for it was 
larger than the usual size of a spoon intended to bring food to the mouth. 
The lacquer-painted spoons found in the Mawangdui Tombs also seem to 
support the idea that some of them were not for personal use. Most of the 
spoons were over 1 8 cm long (bowl + handle) and 6 cm wide (bowl), which 
might be more suitable as a serving tool. In addition, the Mawangdui 
Tombs contained a number of small bowls, which were oval-shaped, 
shallow, with two “ears” or wings, one on each side. Archaeologists 
have suspected that this type of bowl was used to hold ale/wine, soup or 
watery food, for the two wings were obviously designed for one to grip by 
hand and deliver whatever was inside the bowl to the mouth. In other 
words, using these winged bowls to transport food, e.g. millet porridge, 
one did not need a spoon. 

If during the early Han period the dining custom in China remained 
more or less unchanged from the previous ages - the Chinese used 
utensils and hands alternately in transporting foods - a notable change 
occurred toward the end of the Han, beginning in the second century. 
This change led to the increased use of utensils, which eventually 
replaced fingers. In Chinese literature, feeding utensils were referred to as 
bizhu (spoon and chopsticks). One of the earliest mentions of bizhu is in 
Chen Shou’s (233-297) History of the Three Kingdoms (San’guozhi), a 

^ H. T. Huang states that during the Han, “fingers were used for rice, chopsticks for viands 
and spoons for soups.” See his “Han Gastronomy - Chinese Cuisine in statu nascendi," 
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews^ 15:2 (1990), 149. Though largely correct, this statement 
overlooks the fact that spoons were also used for eating such loose grains as millet before 
and during this period. 

Dish, rice or noodle^ The changing use of chopsticks 


historical account of the fall of the Han and the rise of the Kingdoms of Wei, 
Shu and Wu in its ruins during the third century. Chen begins by describing 
the decline of the Han dynasty, attributing it to the manipulation of young 
emperors by both eunuchs and military strongmen. Dong Zhuo a 

powerful general, is recorded as an early example of the latter. According 
to Chen, to intimidate his opponents and exercise full control of the Han 
court, Dong once invited other ministers to a dinner party, at which he 
punished a group of war prisoners by cutting out their tongues and eyes and 
amputating their limbs in front of everyone. Having witnessed such horror, 
many “dropped their spoons and chopsticks as they were trembling with 
fear,” while Dong calmly ate his food and drank his wine.^ Chen’s graphic 
description reveals that at the time, or toward the end of the Han, spoons 
and chopsticks were used more as a set in transferring food. 

This is not the only time Chen Shou mentions spoons and chopsticks in 
the same breath. A more proverbial incident occurred at another dining 
occasion, or between Cao Cao (155-2Z0) and Liu Bei (161-223), future 
founders of the Kingdom of Wei and Kingdom of Shu. Cao, a military 
strongman who exercised power and influence at the Han court after Dong 
Zhuo, invited Liu to a dinner meeting. Though a member of the Han royal 
family, Liu at the time was Cao’s junior both in age as well as in power. 
Before the meeting, Liu had been given a secret decree by the reigning Han 
emperor to find a way to kill Cao. At the dinner just as Liu was ready to eat, 
Cao toasted him: “Well, as I see it, you and I are the only two heroes in the 
country. All others are really nobody.” Afraid that Cao had discovered his 
conspiracy, wrote Chen, “Liu dropped both his spoon and chopsticks on 
the floor,” out of shock and fear.*^ 

It is unclear from these stories whether or not the people involved 
employed spoons and chopsticks exclusively in conveying food, or still 
used their hands on occasion. But from then - the third century - to the 
early twentieth century, bizhu or chizhu, its variation (chi is shaped more 
like a modern spoon, with a shallow bowl and a long and curved handle, 
usually longer than the one on the bi), became a stock phrase in Chinese 
texts, used in many texts across various genres whenever an eating occa- 
sion was depicted or recorded.^ (Details are omitted here to save space but 
some examples are given in later chapters.) This suggests that from no later 

^ Chen Shou, Sanguozhi (History of the Three Kingdoms) - “Dong Zhuo, Li Cui, Guo Fan” 
(Biographies of Dong Zhuo, Li Cui and Guo Fan), HDWZK, 176. 

^ Chen, San’guozhi - “Liu Bei” (Biography of Liu Bei), HDWZK, 875. 

^ Bizhu appears a total of 1,232 times and chizhu 492 times in the texts in ZJGK. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

than the third century, eating with utensils, shunning one’s hands, had 
become a preferred custom, or a social norm, among the Chinese. 

As chopsticks were effective extensions of the fingers, their flexibility 
was instrumental in helping the Chinese to cease using their hands for 
eating meals during this era. Sima Qian’s story of Zhou Yafu disclosed 
that in Han times, the function of chopsticks had already extended 
beyond picking up just vegetables in soups as had been prescribed by 
the Classic of Rites. But for chopsticks to become an efficient tool to carry 
all foodstuffs in the nongrain dishes, it was necessary to cut the food into 
small morsels for the utensil to clasp and pinch and for the mouth to bite 
and chew. As some Shang bronze vessels were large in size, one could 
assume that in the Bronze Age, the early Chinese had cooked large lumps 
of meat. Once cooked, the meat could be bitten off, though more deli- 
cately when guests were present. Hence the Classic of Rites suggests that 
while eating with guests, “meat that is wet [and soft] may be divided with 
the teeth, but dried flesh cannot be so dealt with.”^° This shows that 
biting off cooked meat was socially acceptable, but gnawing on large 
pieces of dried meat was not. 

During the twilight years of the Zhou period, a new culinary practice 
seems to have appeared, appealing first to the cultured class: cutting and 
slicing meat into desirable portions and arranging them properly for a 
better visual presentation and dining experience. Confucius, as a cultural 
master, was known for being meticulous about whether or not meat was 
minced into the right size. “He did not eat meat,” his students observed, 
“which was not cut properly, nor what was served without its proper 
sauce.” In fact, Confucius’ eating preference is best characterized as fol- 
lows: “He did not dislike to have his rice finely cleaned, nor to have his 
mince meat cut quite small.” 

Could the new culinary practice of cutting meat into small pieces 
have arisen because of the scarcity of animal meat at the time? It is hard 
to know one way or another. But historical texts reveal that the Zhou 
government did discourage meat consumption, especially beef, for cattle 
and water buffalo were valuable in helping with farm work. Other land 
animal meats, such as lamb, pork and even dog, were also reserved for 
special occasions. The Classic of Rites, therefore, contains the following 

Liji - “Quli I,” CTP 48. Confucius, Confucian Analects, 232. 
Xu, Zhongguo yinshishi, 29-36. 

Dish, rice or noodlef The changing use of chopsticks 


Without sufficient cause, a prince did not kill an ox, nor a great officer a sheep, nor 
another officer a dog or a pig, nor a common person eat delicate food. 

The advice given by the Mencius appears more stringent: 

Let mulberry trees be planted about the homesteads with their five mu [a unit in 
measuring land], and persons of fifty years may be clothed with silk. In keeping 
fowls, pigs, dogs, and swine, let not their times of breeding be neglected, and 
persons of seventy years may eat flesh [emphasis added]. 

As consuming the meat of larger land animals became regulated, the 
Chinese turned to smaller ones, such as chicken, pheasant and ducks 
whose meat hardly required much cutting. Thus the practice of slicing 
meat into bite-size morsels might also be the default choice, besides being 
the cultural preference. But the latter was undoubtedly important. During 
the Han dynasty as Confucianism gained ascendancy to become an official 
ideology, the general populace perhaps also adopted Confucius’ dining 
preferences as the norm for demonstrating cultural refinement. 

The finds at Mawangdui Tombs again help to shed light on culinary 
customs during Han times. A total of 31Z inscribed bamboo slips, or 
proto-books in ancient China, were uncovered from the burial sites. 
Some of these “books” were indeed recipes, offering information not 
only on cooked food but also on cooking methods. We know from them 
that “roasting, scalding, shallow-frying, steaming, deep-frying, stewing, 
salting, sun-drying, and pickling” were ways of cooking practiced during 
this age. But the recipes also show that stewing - or cooking geng - was 
most popular. The gewg/stews described on the bamboo slips were broken 
down into two groups: meat stew and mixed stew. The former included 
nine different recipes, made respectively of ox, sheep, deer, pig, suckling 
pig, dog, wild duck, pheasant and chicken. The latter, mixing meat with 
grains and/or vegetables, such as beef and rice, had even more variety: 
“deer meat-salted fish-bamboo shoots, deer meat-taro, deer meat-small 
beans, chicken-gourd, crucian carp-rice, fresh sturgeon-salted fish-lotus 
root, dog meat-celery, crucian carp-lotus root, beef-turnip, lamb-turnip, 
pork-turnip, beef-sonchus (a wide grass), and dog meat-sonchus.”^^ 
Specific as they were, these recipes did not detail whether, in stewing larger 
animal meats, one should slice them into small portions as with other, 
smaller meats (chicken, duck, pheasant, etc.). But possibly people did, as 
almost all the stews mixed many ingredients, which would work better if 
they were in similar sizes. 

Ying-shih Yu, “Han,” Food in Chinese Culture^ 57-58. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

“The whole culinary art of China,” summarized Lin Yu-tang, a famous 
writer of twentieth-century China, “depends on the art of mixture.”^"* 
When food items were prepared in similar sizes and cooked together in 
a pot, chopsticks became the best tool for eating them, irrespective of 
whether they were meat, vegetable or something else. This culinary art 
seems already well established in the Han. Thus upon seeing a big piece of 
uncut meat, Zhou Yafu looked for a pair of chopsticks, but not a knife or a 
dagger-shaped hi, even though chopsticks clearly were not the right tool 
to help him eat the meat. Zhou had possibly already become accustomed 
to eating nongrain foods, including meat dishes, with chopsticks. 

Since the Chinese had eschewed knives and forks very early on, it could 
be daunting and awkward for them to handle a huge piece of animal 
meat. In Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian, another story in 
the biography of Liu Bang is worth citing here. When Liu Bang was still 
gathering his forces, Xiang Yu, then his chief rival, invited him to a 
banquet at Hongmen, near modern Xi’an. But it was a trap because 
Xiang, whose force then was larger than Liu’s, intended to annihilate Liu 
and his entire entourage. Having realized the dangerous situation. Fan 
Kuai, Liu’s bodyguard, burst onto the scene. Xiang challenged him by 
giving him a half-cooked pig leg. Unfazed, Fan carved the leg with his 
sword on his shield and devoured it. His courage intimidated Xiang. As 
Xiang hesitated, Liu Bang seized the moment and found an excuse to 
escape from the situation, saving his life. In the end, it was Liu who turned 
around and defeated Xiang, establishing the Han dynasty.^’ The banquet 
at Hongmen, therefore, became the most remembered one in Chinese 
history, for Xiang’s failure in killing Liu at the site tipped the balance of 
power against him, resulting in his ultimate defeat and death. Interestingly, 
Fan Kuai’s heroism was displayed by overcoming a big piece of meat! 

Handling big pieces of meat in the Han became heroic and courageous 
because during this period, it had gradually become a custom to cook meat 
in small, bite-size morsels. One story recorded by Fan Ye (398-445), a 
post-Han historian, helps illustrate this point. A person named Lu Xu was 
involved in a conspiracy against the court and was arrested. His mother 
sent a meal to him in jail. Passing it to Lu, the warden did not tell him who 
had cooked it. As Lu Xu was eating the stew, he broke down in tears and 
told the warden that the meal had to be cooked by his mother. Asked how 
he knew, Lu answered: “When my mother cooks a stew, she dices meat 

Quoted in Chang, “Ancient China,” Food in Chinese Culture^ 31. 

Sima, Shiji - “Xiang Yu benji” (Biography of Xiang Yu), HDWZK, 312-3 13. 

Dish, rice or noodlef The changing use of chopsticks 


into exact cubes and cuts scallions into the same inches. So I know this stew 
must be made by her.”^^ All these charming stories help establish that in 
Han China, as cooked items were cut into bite size pieces, chopsticks had 
extended their utility and were used to convey all nongrain foods, no 
longer just the vegetables in the stew. 

But the expansion of the utility of chopsticks did not stop here, for in the 
Han, a new and different “culinary revolution” also occurred, pertaining to 
the grain food people then ate. This “revolution” was powered and char- 
acterized by milling wheat into flour and cooking doughy foods. As noted 
before, the earliest sample of noodles has so far been discovered in China. In 
the Neolithic cultural sites across North China, archaeologists have located 
saddle querns and rubbing stones, suggesting the people had ground grains. 
However, in the middle and late Neolithic Age, the Yangshao Culture 
(5000-3000 bce) near Xi’an and the Dawenkou Culture (4040-2Z40 
bce) in Shandong failed to produce a stone grinder. Food historians have 
speculated that by that time, people had turned to steaming and boiling 
cereals whole, instead of grinding them.^'^ 

Boiled or steamed wheat was called maifan in Chinese. It denotes the fact 
that wheat, like rice and millet, was cooked whole. But maifan was known 
to be coarse and unpalatable.^^ As a result, maifan symbolized a simple and 
frugal lifestyle. For instance, if maifan was an official’s daily food, it would 
help establish him as an upright moral person, even receiving accolades from 
the emperor. There were ways to improve the taste of boiled whole wheat. 
One was to mix it with other foods, such as red beans, soybeans and 
vegetables, in cooking. And the other was to flavor it with certain seeds 
and flowers. The blossoming pagoda tree flowers, for example, were often 

Fan Ye, HouHanshu (Late Han history) - “Lu Xu” (Biography of Lu Xu), HDWZK, 

Yu, “Han,” Food in Chinese Culture, 8iff; and Zhang Guangzhi {Chang Kuang-chih), 
"Zhongguo yinshishi shangde jici tupo” (Several breakthroughs in the Chinese food and 
drink history), Di 4 jie Zhongguo yinshi wenhua xueshu yantaohui lunwenji (Proceedings 
of the 4th academic symposium on Chinese food and drink culture) (Taipei: Zhongguo 
yinshi wenhua jijinhui, 1996), 3. 

Ishige Naomichi, “Filamentous Noodles, '^Miantiao': Their Origin and Diffusion,” Di 3 jie 
Zhongguo yinshi wenhua xueshu yantaohui lunwenji (Proceedings of the 3rd academic 
symposium on Chinese food and drink culture) (Taipei: Zhongguo yinshi wenhua jijinhui, 
1994), 118. 

Xu, Zhongguo yinshishi, 475-476. 

Xu Pingfang, “Zhongguo yinshi wenhua de diyuxing jiqi ronghe” (Regions and cross- 
regional development in Chinese food and drinking culture), Di 4 jie Zhongguo yinshi 
wenhua xueshu yantaohi lunwenji (Proceedings of the 4th academic symposium on 
Chinese food and drinking culture) (Taipei: Zhongguo yinshi wenhua jijinhui, 1996), 96-97. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

mixed in when cooking wheat. It made maifan fragrant and even entic- 
ing, hence easier to swallow. But its texture remained not as soft as that of 
rice or millet, especially the huangliang (lit. yellow millet; ordinary 
Setaria) variety of millet. 

But once wheat is milled into flour and made into doughy food, its taste 
becomes dramatically improved. This is also how most people consume 
the grain today. The Chinese had discovered the method from the Han 
period. Both archaeology and history have shown that around the first 
century bce, the Chinese not only resumed using saddle querns, but they 
also turned to rotary querns to grind wheat into flour, which became fine 
enough to make dumpling wrappers and noodles. In the Han tombs of 
Shaokou of Henan Province, for example, archaeologists found three 
millstones in 1958. Then a decade later in 1968, an archaeological exca- 
vation unearthed another rotary millstone in a well-preserved Han tomb in 
Mancheng, Hebei Province. In addition, Huan Tan’s (zy bce to 50 ce) 
New Essays (Xinlun) provides the best textual evidence about the variety 
of mills used in his time: 

After Mi Xi [Fu Xi, an agricultural god] invented the pestle and mortar, the 
invention benefited numerous people. Over time, people improved its use and 
learned how to grind [the grain] with the help of their body weight. The result 
was ten times better than before. Further on, they invented devices that allowed 
them to use the ox, horse, donkey and mule as well as to use water to power the 
mill. Then the result was improved a hundred times.’’’ 

The existence of these animal mills and watermills indicates that grinding 
had become common for processing wheat and other grains during this era. 

Thanks to milling, floured wheat foods became popular in Han China. 
In Chinese, the term bing refers to either dough or dough-based foods. 
While it had appeared in the Mozi, attributed to Mo Zi (470-391 bce), the 
term appeared much more frequently in Han texts. Liu Xi’s Shiming, a 
lexicon from the second century ce, for example, registers six types of 
floured wheat foods distinguished by different prefixes that describe either 
their texture or shape. Bing’s popularity also entered historical records. 
Before Han Emperor Xuan (r. 74-49 bce) was chosen as the successor to 
the throne, according to the record, he often purchased bing from street 

Huan Tan, Xinlun (New essays) (Shanghai: Shanghai renmin chubanshe, 1967), 44. 
Mozi, Mozi - “Gengzhu,” CTP, 18. Combining the radical “shi” (food) and the verb 
''bing” (to blend), bing described how wheat flour dough was made by adding water to 
the flour - the word bing without the food radical, means “to blend” whereas its 
homonym bing 1^, with the food radical, refers to a food that blends - mixes - wheat 
flour with water. 

Dish, rice or noodlef The changing use of chopsticks 


food stands. Another Han ruler, Emperor Zhi (r. 145-146 ce) also loved 
bing, which unfortunately caused his tragic death; an evil minister put 
poison into the “boiled bing” [zhubing - noodXts}) for him to eat.^^ 

Not only did Han rulers like floured wheat products, but they also 
designed policies to encourage wheat farming, especially in areas around 
the Han capital in today’s Xi’an. Fan Shengzhi, a minor official under Han 
Emperor Cheng (r. 3Z-7 bce), was put in charge of the project. For his 
success. Fan received promotion. Drawing on his experience. Fan also 
wrote a book, one of the first food histories in China, which describes 
the techniques of growing both winter and spring wheat. The Monthly 
Ordinances for the Four Peoples (Simin yueling), another Han agricultural 
text by Cui Shi (105-170), further instructs that spring wheat should be 
sown in the first month (February) of the year, winter wheat in the eighth 
month (October).^** And the trend to grow more wheat continued in the 
following centuries. During the Tang dynasty, wheat rivaled millet as the 
leading cereal crop in North China, a subject to be discussed below. 

If the improved milling technology made it easier to produce flour from 
wheat, the craze for doughy foods among the Chinese reflected influences 
from Central and South Asia. That is, although the nomadic or semi- 
nomadic tribal peoples on the Han empire’s northern borders presented 
a perennial concern for the Han government, cultural exchanges invari- 
ably took place between the Han Chinese and the so-called huren. Huren 
was a disparaging term then coined by the Chinese to refer to all nomadic 
inhabitants in the Xiyu (lit. Western regions), which was a sweeping 
concept for the vast regions stretching from Northwest China to Central 
and South Asia in Chinese texts. In an article on the food culture in Han 
and post-Han China, David Knechtges, professor of Chinese at the 
University of Washington, points out that “the foods of the western 
regions can often be identified by the presence of the prefix hu, which in 
the early medieval period refers to the peoples of Central Asia, India, and 
‘more particularly to peoples of Iranian extraction. Xiyu was at times a 

Fan, HouHanshu - “Li Du Liezhuan” (Biographies of Li Gu and Du Qiao), HDWZK, 

Fan Shengzhi, Fan Shengzhi shu (Fan Shengzhi’s book), annotated Shi Shenghan (Beijing: 
Kexue chubanshe, 1956), 8-20; Cui Shi, Simin yueling jiaozhu (Annotated Monthly 
Ordinances for the Four Peoples)^ annotated Shi Shenghan (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 
1965), 13. 60-64. 

David R. Knechtges, “Gradually Entering the Realm of Delight: Food and Drink in 
Early Medieval China,” Journal of the American Oriental Society,, 117:2 (April-June 
1997), 231. 

52 - 

Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

troublesome area for the Han Empire where assaults on its borders origi- 
nated, but it was also a crucial pathway for the Empire to explore trade 
relations with its nomadic neighbors. The famed Silk Road, which passed 
through the region, is a prime example. Zhang Qian (164-114 bce), a 
Han official who led a decade-long mission sent by Han Emperor Wu 
(r. 141-87 bce) to the Xiyu, was a prominent figure in trailblazing the Silk 
Road. In Han historical records, Zhang was credited with bringing 
back many fruits, vegetables and grain crops, in addition to horses.^'’ 
The most well known were alfalfa, peas, onion, broad bean, cucumber, 
carrot, walnut, grapes, pomegranate and sesame; all of them later became 
well integrated in the Chinese food system. 

In fact, bing became a popular food in Han China also because of 
Central Asian influences. Toward the end of the third century, a writer 
named Shu Xi (263-302) wrote “Rhapsody on Pasta” (Bingfu), describing 
vividly a variety of bing available at that time. It gives a glowing and saliva- 
inducing description of how these bing were made - e.g. with or without 
meat - and what they tasted like when seasoned with different condiments 
and how to consume them. Jia Sixie’s Essential Techniques for the 
Peasantry, the sixth-century agricultural encyclopedia, also includes a 
dozen recipes for making bing. These recipes reveal that some types of 
bing were made similarly to doughy foods such as baked pancakes (shaob- 
ing), hand-pulled noodles (lamian) and wonton [huntun), which are still 
consumed daily by many today. 

At the outset of his beautifully rhymed essay, Shu Xi makes an interest- 
ing observation. “The making of the bing," he writes, “was something 
quite recent. It might, as I was told, have come from the common folks or 
even originated in a foreign land [emphasis added].” Shu was probably 
right in noting the bing’s origin, for in Han China, hubing, with the prefix 
hu for its Central Asian influence, seems to have been the quintessential 
bing of the age. The Han Emperor Ling (168-189 bce), it was recorded, 
liked ‘‘‘'hu clothes, hu tent, hu seat, hu [way of] sitting, hu food, hu harp, hu 
flute, and hu dances.” And because of his interest in the exotic, “royal 
relatives and nobles at the capital all tried to follow suit.” As a result, a “hu 
craze” swept over the entire Empire, which included hiring hu soldiers in 
the Han army. Dong Zhuo, the powerful warlord in the late Han, was 
known for bolstering his military prowess by using hu cavalry. Without 

Sima, Shiji - “Dawan liezhuan” (Biography of Great Wan), HDWZK, 3166-3168; Ban 
Gu, Hanshu - “Dawan guo” (Kingdom of Great Wan), HDWZK, 3895. 

Fan, HouHanshu - “Fuyao” (Subdue the demon), HDWZK, 3272. 

Dish, rice or noodlef The changing use of chopsticks 


question, hubing was a doughy food, made of floured wheat. When Liu Xi 
described the six most common wheat foods in the second century, hubing 
was the first on the list. Liu described hubing as “a big flatbread with 
sesame seeds on top.”’*^ As such, it resembles naan bread, a daily starchy 
food of Central Asia then and now. The Uyghurs (a Turkic people) in 
Xinjiang, which is part of the Xiyu, call naan bread nang and still consume 
it daily. In other parts of China, the popular zhima shaobing (baked 
sesame seed bread/pancakes) might be its variation. 

Eating hubing, or baked bread and pancakes in general, does not 
usually require the use of utensils. This perhaps further proves that in 
most of Han China, spoons and chopsticks were not necessarily used 
together in eating a meal - particularly if the grain food was bread. As a 
craze, the once prevalent influence of Central Asian food began to taper 
off toward the late Han. For instance, despite hubing’s popularity, bak- 
ing never became a leading cooking method in Chinese communities. The 
other common wheat foods described in Liu Xi’s dictionary are early 
forms of noodles and dumplings, cooked by either boiling or steaming, 
the two more traditional Chinese methods. By the third century, when 
Shu Xi heaped his praise on wheat foods, most of them were already 
made and cooked in traditional Chinese ways. For instance, in place of 
baking, the Chinese steamed dough into mantou (steamed buns), or 
lightly pan-fried it into mianbing (pancakes). Then there were noodles, 
called tangbing (lit. dough in the soup) by Shu. Shu Xi also made specific 
recommendations on how to eat these varieties in tandem with seasonal 
changes. Mantou was best for a warm spring, he said, whereas tangbing 
was for the summer because it was cooked in water, which is needed for 
the body as it perspires in the heat. For the winter season, Shu suggested 
eating mianbing hot to cope with the cold weather.^” Of these varieties, it 
seems Shu Xi personally preferred mantou, or steamed buns, which can be 
dubbed “Chinese bread.” Over time, mantou became a daily food across 

Liu Xi, Shiming (Interpretation of names) (Taipei: Shangwu yinshuguan, 1965), juan 

4, 6z. 

Cf. Zhu Guozhao, “Zhongguo de yinshi wenhua yu sichou zhilu” {Chinese food and drink 
culture and the Silk Road), Zhongguo yinshi wenhua (Chinese food and drink culture), ed. 
Nakayama Tokiko, trans. Xu Jianxin (Beijing: Zhongguo shehui kexue chubanshe, 1990), 
228-231. A more extensive discussion of the naan bread as hubing in ancient China is in 
He, Tianshan jiayan, 75-84. 

See Liu, Zhongguo zhu wenhuashi, 1 80-1 81. David Knechtges translates some of Shu Xi’s 
rhapsody in his “Gradually Entering the Realm of Delight: Food and Drink in Early 
Medieval China,,'' Journal of the American Oriental Society, 117:2 (April-June 1997), 2.36. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

China, along with baozi, wheat dough with a filling (meat, vegetables, red 
bean paste, etc.) wrapped inside. 

Baozi is made similarly to jiaozi, or Chinese dumplings, for both wrap 
food inside a thin flour skin. Also like baozi, jiaozi can be steamed, though 
boiled jiaozi seems to have been more common. A more significant differ- 
ence lies in the way one eats them: jiaozi is transported by chopsticks 
whereas baozi is held by the hand. Chopsticks are also a convenient tool 
for eating noodles, another popular doughy food. As an expert on wheat 
foods, Shu Xi already observed in his time that chopsticks were most 
suitable for eating noodles.^ ^ In the following ages, these two forms 
of wheat foods became more popular than other varieties. Yan Zhitui 
(531-595), a prominent writer of his time, made a remark, exclaiming 
that the dumpling - which he called huntun, or wonton - had become so 
popular that it was indeed “a food for everyone in the world!” If this 
were the case, then it also continued in the centuries after. The Ennin’s 
Diary, written by Ennin (793-864), a Buddhist monk from Japan, 
chronicled his trip in Tang China during 838-847. When they traversed 
China, Ennin and his associates were at times offered huntun by the 
Chinese. They also ate noodles as often as - if not more than - wonton 
while in Tang China. 

Thanks to the popularity of noodles and dumplings in Han and post- 
Han China, chopsticks, perhaps for the first time, became employed also in 
conveying grain food, and the mixed form of both grain and nongrain food 
in particular. As discussed in the Introduction, once these forms of floured 
foods were created, then the traditional fan-cai, or grain and nongrain 
food, divide became irrelevant, for in making dumplings one blends the 
grain and nongrain foods in one unity, while in eating noodles one also 
tends to mix them with some sauce or broth. Chopsticks are quite adequate 
for conveying both dumplings and noodles. While drinking the broth in a 
soup noodle dish, a spoon can be of assistance, though it is not indispensable 
because one can raise the bowl to the mouth and drink the soup directly. 
In fact, this is even a recommended way among the Japanese: consuming 
the broth amounts to the final act in finishing the noodles. One is also 

Liu, Zhongguo zhu wenhuashi, i8i. 

Duan Gonglu, Beihulu {Gazetteers of Guangdong), juan 2, ZJGK, 20. Many recipe books 
from the period, especially those written in the Tang, registered the popularity of dump- 
lings in China. There were as many as twenty-four varieties of dumpling fillings, according 
to one recipe. See Nakayama, Zhongguo yinshi wenhua,, 165. 

Ennin’s Diary: The Record of a Pilgrimage to China in Search of Law, trans. 
Edwin Reischauer (New York: Ronald Press, 1955), 107, 141, 209, 295-296. 

Dish, rice or noodlef The changing use of chopsticks 


supposed to drink miso soup this way in Japan, after using chopsticks to 
pick up the foodstuffs therein. 

Since dumplings and noodles are so important to the increased use of 
chopsticks, a brief review of their history perhaps is in order. Legend 
attributes the invention of dumplings to Zhang Zhongjing (i 50-219), a 
Han pharmacologist. The earliest example of dumplings, however, had 
appeared much earlier; it was found in a grave dating back to the fourth 
century bce.^"^ The Chinese term for dumplings - jiaozi - did not enter 
popular use until the Song dynasty (960-1279), but huntun appeared 
earlier. In Guangya, a comprehensive lexicon compiled by the philologist 
Zhang Yi in the early third century, huntun is described as a ball of dough 
shaped like the miniature crescent moon. Since the earliest noodle samples 
were discovered in China, the Chinese might take the credit as their 
inventor. Like pasta, noodles have several varieties, with lamian being 
the most well known. In classical Chinese, soup noodle was called either 
suobing (string noodle), or tangbing, or shuiyinbing (lit. noodle drawn/ 
floated in the water) - the former refers to its shape and the latter to the way 
it is cooked in boiling water. Suobing thus is thinner, more like vermi- 
celli; it is called somen in Japanese and somyeon in Korean. 

The popularity of noodles also extended beyond regions in East Asia 
westward, along the Silk Road, to Central Asia and beyond. That is to 
say, while the Han Chinese imported a number of plants and fruits from 
Central Asia, they also exported noodles to their neighbors through Xiyu, 
including today’s Xinjiang. Ishige Naomichi, a Japanese expert on food 
cultures in East Asia, has noted that the Uyghur word lagman/legman, 
meaning filamentous noodles, which is commonly used by the peoples 
from Xinjiang to Central Asia, was derived from the Chinese term 
lamian?^ And the spread continued further. In his philological study 
of medieval Turkish, Peter B. Golden discusses the “pasta complex,” 

Wang Renxiang, “Cong kaogu faxian kan Zhongguo gudaide yinshi wenhua chuan- 
tong” (Traditions of food and drink culture in ancient China shown in archaeological 
finds), Hubei jingji xueyuan xuebao (Journal of Hubei economics college), 2 (2004), 
III. But Wang also notes that better shaped dumplings, resembling more the modern 
ones, were found in Xinjiang in the seventh century. Cf. Xinjiang Weiwuer zizhiqu 
bowuguan (Uyghur autonomous district in Xinjiang), “Xinjiang Tulufan Asitana beiqu 
muzang fajue jianbao” (Brief report on the excavation in the tombs of northern Astana, 
Turpan, Xinjiang), Wentvu (Cultural relics), 6 (i960), 20-21. Also, He, Tianshan 
jiayan, 85-86. 

See Jia Sixie, Qimin yaoshu (Essential techniques for the peasantry), http://zh. wikisource, 
org/zh/^^^ll^j, juan 9, “Bingfa” (methods in making doughy foods). 

Ishige, “Filamentous Noodles, ‘‘Miantiao': Their Origins and Diffusion,” 122. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

spreading from East Asia to the Mediterranean through the migration of 
such nomads as the Xiongnu and the Mongols from the first to 
the fourteenth centuries. Golden also notes the intrinsic relationship 
between eating noodles and chopsticks use. In medieval Turkish, he 
finds, chopsticks were glossed as “two sticks of wood with which maca- 
roni is eaten. 

As chopsticks gained broader appeal as an eating implement, they also 
came to be made of more expensive and durable materials. To be sure, 
wooden and bamboo chopsticks remained the most common throughout 
the period, as they were more likely used by the masses. But archaeolog- 
ical digs in China have recorded a significant increase in metal chopsticks 
from the first century onward and, in particular, a great number of silver 
chopsticks between the sixth and the tenth centuries. Having looked over 
the unearthed samples of chopsticks, Liu Yun remarks that from the 
Neolithic Age, chopsticks were always made of different materials, rang- 
ing from bone and brass or bronze to bamboo and wood. In early 
Han tombs, such as in Mawangdui, bamboo chopsticks were common 
whereas toward the late Han, more brass utensils were found. “But in the 
Sui and Tang periods,” Liu notices, “a significant change occurred,” as 
many chopsticks were made of precious metals, jade and rare animal 

Of the chopsticks unearthed in China from 1949 to the present, silver 
chopsticks have been found most frequently, totaling eighty-seven pairs, 
all dating between the sixth and the tenth centuries, or the Sui and Tang 
periods. The earliest sample of silver chopsticks in the group was 
unearthed near Xi’an, capital of the Sui dynasty (581-618),^^ but others 
appeared across the land. In fact, more silver chopsticks were discovered in 
the south, or the Yangzi River regions, than in the north. Of the eighty- 
seven pairs of silver chopsticks, thirty-six of them surfaced in Dantu, 
Jiangsu, and thirty were found in Changxing, Zhejiang. 

The uneven distribution of these unearthed silver chopsticks could be 
coincidental. But without question, the unprecedentedly large number of 
metal chopsticks, and the silver variety in particular, found from the Sui 

Peter B. Golden, “Chopsticks and Pasta in Medieval Turkic Cuisine,” Rocznik orientalis- 
ticzny, 49 (1994-1995), 71-80. 

Liu, Zhongguo Zhu wenhuashi, 215. 

Zhongguo shehui kexueyuan kaogu yanjiusuo {The Institute of Archaeology, Chinese 
Academy of the Social Sciences), Tang Chang’an chengjiao Suimu (The Sui tombs near 
the Tang capital Chang’ an) (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1980). 

Liu, Zhongguo zhu wenhuashi^ 215-219. 

Dish, rice or noodlef The changing use of chopsticks 


and Tang periods suggests that they were in vogue at the time. Multiple 
reasons might account for this new phenomenon. One could be the con- 
cern for durability, as mentioned above, since chopsticks now took on 
more duties - transferring not only nongrain but also grain food. The other 
might be due to the common belief that silver could detect arsenic poison- 
ing in food, hence making silver chopsticks desired by the rich and power- 
ful in China and beyond. The third factor, to be discussed below, might 
have something to do with the increased consumption of meat, lamb and 
mutton in particular, among the northern Chinese in the Tang period. 

Additionally, Liu Yun and his cowriters argue that improved living 
standards and metallurgical technology in the Tang made metal chopsticks 
more available in that period. Their argument is based on the finding that 
some of the silver and other metal chopsticks had exquisite carvings on top 
or were even plated with fine gold; both had not been seen before. In other 
words, during the Tang, crafted or artistic chopsticks - gongyi zhu in 
Chinese and kogei bashi in Japanese - appeared (Plate 2.7)."*^ 
Demonstrating advanced technology, these crafted chopsticks also attest 
to the improved life under the Tang as well as the elevated status of 
chopsticks, which began to be exchanged as gifts. 

The Tang dynasty was another golden age in Chinese imperial history, 
rivaling the previous Han dynasty in importance. The Tang Empire 
occupied a large territory; the part on the west stretched to Inner Asia 
during most of its rule. As such, the Tang kept open the channel for 
Central and South Asian influences to filter into China proper. Some 
ancestors of the Li family who founded the Tang dynasty originally 
came from the prairieland. After establishing their government, Tang 
rulers designed and promoted policies to encourage trade and commerce 
between the Han Chinese and their nomadic neighbors to the north and 
northwest. They also allowed the practice of different religious faiths and 
fostered cultural exchanges in the region. Thus the period under Tang 
rule is commonly called an era of cosmopolitanism in East Asian history. 
It was during this cosmopolitan age that the chopsticks cultural sphere 
took deeper roots and also expanded in Asia (e.g. into Japan). 

Tang rulers’ open-mindedness encouraged diverse culinary practices to 
coexist among the different peoples under its rule. To some extent, this was 
the default choice for the Tang government because after the fall of the 
Han dynasty. North China had become overrun by several nomadic 
groups, causing massive migration: Chinese farming communities from 

Ibid., 222-225. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

the region moved southward, mostly to the Yangzi River regions. In 
Chinese history, this post-Han period is usually referred to as the “period 
of southern and northern dynasties” because as the nomads established 
their regimes in North and Northwest China, the emigre groups who 
retreated from the north (re)created their governments in South and 
Southwest China. In both the north and south, the kingdoms were short- 
lived; none was able to conquer the others and unify the land until the rise 
of the Sui dynasty in the late sixth century, followed by Tang rule in the 
early seventh century. All this meant that the northern and southern divide 
in foodway and cookery continued. Given the nomadic influence, the 
people in the north, for example, consumed more meat and dairy foods, 
whereas the people in the south took rice, fish and vegetables as their 
daily foods. This difference in food intake and taste is well reflected in 
literature. Yang Xuanzhi’s Records of Buddhist Temples in Luoyang 
(Luoyang qielanji), an expansive literary and historical text written in the 
mid-sixth century, described how when Wang Su, a southerner, worked 
for the Northern Wei dynasty (386-534), a nomadic regime in North 
China, he retained his habit of eating rice and fish stew and drinking tea, 
instead of taking lamb and drinking milk as most others around him did. 
Indeed, while Wang Su was disgusted by the northern diet, the northerners 
also disliked and mocked his eating habits. 

The interregnum between the fall of the Han and the rise of the Tang 
also saw the commencement of the formative period of Buddhist influence 
in East Asia. But interestingly, Buddhist influence too was received differ- 
ently in China. Even though Mahay ana Buddhism, the prevalent sect in 
East Asia, is generally believed to have entered China through the northern 
route, and Buddhism frowned upon animal killing, the people in the north 
still consumed more meat than did their southern counterparts. While 
discussing the Buddhist culinary influence in East Asia, Y ao Weijun observes 
that since meat and dairy foods had been so essential among the Mongols, 
the Tibetans and their peers, their Buddhists, past and present, have never 
practiced meat prohibition.”*^ This is a succinct observation. In the south, 
however, Buddhist conversion discouraged meat consumption, perhaps 
because animal meat was not as important in the traditional diet as in 
the north. In 521, Emperor Wu (aka Xiao Yan, 464-549) of the Southern 

Wang Lihua, Zhonggu huabei yinshi wenhuade bianqian (Changes in food and drink 
culture of North China during the middle imperial period) (Beijing: Zhongguo shehui 
kexue chubanshe, 2001), 278 

Yao Weijun, “Fojiao yu Zhongguo yinshi wenhua" (Buddhism and the food and drink 
culture in China), Minzhu (Democracy monthly), 9 (1997), 32-33. 

Dish, rice or noodlef The changing use of chopsticks 


Liang dynasty (50Z-5 57) issued the first decree prohibiting meat. Known for 
his devotion to Buddhism, which earned him the sobriquet of “the Buddhist 
Monarch” in history, Emperor Wu practiced asceticism and stayed away 
from meat in his diet. He only ate one meal a day, which consisted merely of 
coarse rice and bean stew without alcohol or meat.'*'* 

Several Tang rulers were also known as Buddhist followers but by and 
large meat consumption was not prohibited in the Empire (the south 
included), possibly due to the Li family’s nomadic ancestry from the north- 
west regions. In a paper on the Central Asian influence on the northwestern 
Chinese diet, E. N. Anderson finds that “the northwestern cuisine shares 
a fondness for meat, especially lamb, a flesh otherwise little used in 
China. This is not surprising. In his Essential Techniques for the 
Peasantry, Jia Sixie, who spent most of his life in the north before the 
Tang, already details methods of raising animals, goat and sheep in partic- 
ular, for consumption. Wang Lihua, a Chinese food scholar, also observes 
that from the fifth century, lamb gradually became the more preferred meat 
among the Chinese. Drawing on a number of historical sources, Wang 
argues that during the Tang period, lamb had already replaced pork to 
become the more consumed meat in North China. The Tang government, 
he notes, often rewarded its outstanding officials with lamb meat, but 
seldom with other animal flesh. As a result, lamb was also mentioned 
most frequently in Tang historical texts.'**’ In brief, meat consumption 
rose in Tang China as compared with that in the earlier periods. 

Of course, it remains perhaps an issue for debate whether the phenom- 
enon of increased meat consumption in Tang society can help explain the 
majority of metal utensils excavated from that period. People’s taste in 
things could have been influenced by practical needs as well as by tradition, 
custom and belief. But it is also obvious that metal is more hard-wearing 
than wood and bamboo and that cooked meat remains tougher than fish 
and vegetables - the latter tend to dissolve after heat is applied. Koreans’ 
preference for metal utensils, which is somewhat unique in the chopsticks 
cultural sphere, might support the speculation, for meat figures more 
centrally in Korean cuisines than in any other Asian cuisines. Korean 

Yao Silian, Liangshu (History of the Southern Liang dynasty) - “Wudi benji” (Biography 
of Emperor Wu), HDWZK, 63-94. 

E. N. Anderson, “Northwest Chinese Cuisine and the Central Asian Connection,” 
Di 6 jie Zhongguo yinshi wenhua xueshu yantaohui lunwenji (Proceedings of the 6th 
academic symposium on Chinese food and drink culture) (Taipei: Zhongguo yinshi 
wenhua jijinhui, 1999), 173. 

Wang, Zhonggu huabei yinshi wenhua de bianqian^ 112-116. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

chopsticks were traditionally made of brass and bronze but nowadays are 
made more of stainless steel. Sharing the Chinese belief that silver 
can detect poison, wealthy Koreans also prefer silver chopsticks, then 
and now. By contrast, meat had been generally excluded from Japanese 
cookery for many centuries until the modern era. The Japanese have 
overwhelmingly favored wooden chopsticks; the metal variety seems to 
have had no appeal for them. (Other reasons for the Japanese to choose 
wooden chopsticks will be discussed in the next chapter.) 

Eating more meat and meat-based dishes often turns people to the 
knife and fork. But in Tang China, the most common utensils remained 
bizhu, or spoon and chopsticks, as in the earlier periods. Following the 
culinary tradition of the Han and pre-Han periods, the Chinese contin- 
ued to prepare meat in bite-size morsels before cooking. As a result, 
chopsticks remained the ideal tool for conveying food. Moreover, 
besides boiling and stewing, a new cooking method, stir-frying, gained 
ground beginning in the post-Han period; its popularity reinforced and 
ensured the continual prevalence of chopsticks in this role. Stir-frying 
requires that one first heat the cooking oil in a pan or a wok before 
putting in the ingredients, which are already cut into small pieces for easy 
frying and better mixing. One important advantage of stir-frying is its 
energy efficiency - cooking food rapidly on the flame instead of heating it 
for a long time, as in baking and roasting. Extending the culinary 
tradition of cutting meat and other foodstuffs in small portions, stir- 
frying not only shortens the cooking time but also brings out the blended 
taste of all the components in the dish. Historical texts show that as 
milling became widely adopted to process grain food during the Han era, 
the Chinese also ground other plants such as sesame seeds and rapeseeds 
to make cooking oil. For instance, in his Essential Techniques for the 
Peasantry, Jia Sixie discusses ways to plant and grow sesame. He also 
offers recipes for cooking dishes with sesame oil. One recipe in his book is 
for cooking scrambled eggs. What is intriguing is that Jia’s method, 
except for recommending using sesame oil, is exactly the same as how 
people cook scrambled eggs today. From the Tang period, thanks to 
the use of high-quality charcoal, stir-frying became a more popular and 
more mature cooking method. Indeed, scholars have regarded this cooking 
method as one of the important breakthroughs in the Chinese culinary 

Roberts, China to Chinatown,, 21-22. 

Jia, Qimin yaoshu,,^K^%, juan 6, “Yangji” (raising 

Dish, rice or noodlef The changing use of chopsticks 


tradition.'^® As the food items are small in a stir-fried dish, chopsticks 
become an effective tool for picking them up. Indeed, some may even use 
the utensil to stir-fry the dish - to turn, arrange and mix the ingredients for a 
better result. 

Despite the strong evidence that chopsticks gained more appeal in Tang 
society, the spoon retained its original function in conveying fan, grain 
starch, which remained for many a more important component in a meal. 
Of course, what constituted fan in the Tang reflected regional differences 
as before. Due to the continued southern/northern divide in Chinese 
food culture, rice had to be the daily staple for the people living around 
the Yangzi River regions, as it had been for the previous centuries. 
Unfortunately, most literary sources from the period are from North 
China, where the Tang central government was located. And in the north 
and northwest, millet remained the leading grain. Besides its toughness in 
resisting drought and flood, millet also has another advantage: it is 
immune to insects, which turned it into the best reserve grain for famine 
relief. The Tang document records that the government stored millet in 
granaries. But interestingly, the same source also reveals that wheat had 
become a reserve grain too in the Tang granaries. 

In other words, due to the continual attraction of floured wheat foods, 
the daily grain food consumed by the northern Chinese became more 
diversified - millet’s dominance was undermined by wheat. “Wherever 
a Tang text talks about food,” finds Wang Saishi, another scholar of Tang 
food culture, “it uses ubiquitously the term ‘hmg’ [doughy food].” He also 
notes that compared with the Han period, the variety of bing multiplied 
notably in this period. Hubing, the naan bread of which many Chinese in 
the Han had become enamored, remained popular. Yet its popularity was 
now challenged by the zhengbing (steamed bread/bun) and the jianbing 
(pan-fried bread/cake), the latter cooked with heated oil. There were also 
more varieties of tangbing (noodles) in the Tang. For instance, the Tang 
people ate both hot and cold noodles; the latter resembles the way soba 

Liu, Zhongguo zhu wenhuashi,, 205. Zhao Rongguang states that stir-frying began in the 
post-Han period, made more strides during the Tang and eventually became a mature and 
widely adopted cooking method in the post-Tang periods. Zhongguo yinshi wenhua 
gailun, 173-174. K. C. Chang deemed stir-frying to be one of the revolutions in Chinese 
culinary history, “Zhongguo yinshishi shangde jici tupo” (Several revolutions in the 
Chinese food history), Di 4 jie Zhogguo yinshi wenhua xueshu yantaohui lunwenji 
(Proceedings of the 4th academic symposium of Chinese food and drink culture) (Taipei: 
Zhongguo yinshi wenhua jijinhui, 1996), 1-109. 

See Bray, Science and Civilization in China, vol. 6, pt. 2, 420. 

Wang, Zhonggu huabei yinshi wenhuade bianqian, 69. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

(buckwheat noodle) is consumed in Japan today. Tang texts also showed 
that, as is common in North China today, a noodle dish became a food for 
guests in Tang society.’^ 

Yet besides wheat doughy foods, fan to the northern Chinese still 
meant boiled or steamed grains, usually millet (both the broomcorn and 
foxtail varieties) and wheat, which were continued to be boiled whole in 
making porridge and gruel. Thus in a Tang text, fan usually denoted a 
mushy form of cooked grain food. In their poems and essays, Tang writers 
described how they applied a spoon in scooping fan. Xue Lingzhi (683-?), 
a once high-ranking official dismissed by Emperor Xuanzong (r. 712- 
756), masks his discontent in a poem, in which he complains how he was 
unappreciated by the Emperor, just as someone uses the wrong utensil 
to eat a meal: “when cereal (fan) is sticky, it is hard to use a spoon whereas 
if a stew (geng) is thin, then chopsticks need to be rounder.”^"* Xue’s 
poem helps confirm that the people then used spoons for eating fan and 
chopsticks for cai. Xue also says that fan should not be cooked viscously 
(like cooked rice?), for it is hard for the spoon to transport it. In a letter to a 
friend, Han Yu (768-824), another Tang scholar-official, also writes that 
he used the spoon to convey fan, particularly if it was mushy when cooked. 
As he was aging and had loose teeth, Han tells his friend, he preferred 
the fan cooked rather soft and soggy so it could be scooped easily with 
a spoon. He would then slowly and repeatedly chew on it like a cow 
regurgitating its cud.^^ 

One can imagine that since it was so mushy, the fan Han Yu preferred 
might have been more like zhou (porridge) in texture. Yet the distinction 
between zhou and fan never seems so definitive, but porous and fluid. 
Some zhou can be quite consistent, or thick like gruel, whereas some fan 
can contain much liquid, and hence be rather mushy. Erom the post-Han 
period through the late nineteenth century, in addition to zhou and fan, the 
Chinese coined and employed such terms as shuifan (lit. watered cereal) 
and tangfati (lit. cereal in hot water), which bordered as well as bridged the 

Wang Saishi, Tangdai yinshi {Food and drink culture in the Tang) (Ji’nan: Qilu shushe, 
2003), 1-17; quote on 2. 

Ibid., 1 8-24. A search in the Tang texts in ZJGK shows that maifan appeared a total of fifty 
times, compared with shufan (broomcorn millet) which appeared eighty times and sufan 
(foxtail millet) fifty-five times. 

Xue Lingzhi’s poem is in Wang Dingbao, Tang zhiyan (Anecdotes of Tang literati), juan 

Han Yu, “Zeng Liu Shifu” (To Liu Shifu), Changli xiansheng wenji (Essays of Han Yu), 
juan 5, ZJGK, 38. 

Dish, rice or noodlef The changing use of chopsticks 


zhou-fan distinction. And from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) a new term 
xifan (lit. thinned or diluted cereal) gained currency. Interchangeable with 
zhou, xifan remains in use in modern Chinese. Both terms refer to a kind of 
grain cereal cooked in a liquid form, though the ways they are made may be 
slightly different. Both zhou and xifan are best eaten with a spoon. 

Tang literary writers and poets, like Han Yu, often called the spoon for 
scooping fan liuchi. Combining the character liu (flowing and floating) and 
chi (spoon), the term connotes, figuratively, that when put into use, the 
utensil enables its user to dig swiftly into the fan and scoop it up effortlessly. 
That is, liuchi was a type of spoon that would not allow extra grains to 
adhere to it. To stress its effectiveness, Tang poets often used the verb “slide/ 
glide” {hua) to describe how liuchi worked in eating fan. In a short poem 
about a lavish dinner, Bai Juyi (772-846), a Tang poet contemporaneous 
with Han Yu, exclaimed, and exaggerated: “The fish is so delicious whose 
fat dropped on the flame below making flickers; the cereal granules are so 
refined and smooth that they slide on the spoon [down to my mouth]. 

In order to achieve such an effect - moving a spoon smoothly into the 
fan and scooping it freely as one desires - it seems that two conditions must 
be met. One is that the spoon must have a smooth surface and the other is 
that the cooked grain food must contain a certain amount of water to make 
it less gluey. The first condition seems to be there as most utensils in Tang 
China were made of metal, silver or brass, which tends to have a smoother 
surface than the wooden ones. The second condition is hard to prove with 
material evidence, but the frequent usage of liuchi - its combination with 
the verb hua - in Tang literature seems to indicate that the fan consumed by 
the people during that period could have bordered between fan and zhou 
as they do in modern days. It had to contain enough liquid for people to 
scoop it up swiftly without extra grains sticking to their spoons. Scholars 

Shuifan is first mentioned in Ge Hong, Zhouhou beijifang (Convenient prescriptions for 
emergencies), ZJGK, 74, and Xifan is first found in Feng Menglong, Jingu qiguan 
(Curious spectacles of past and present), juan 32, 410. A search in ZJGK shows that 
xifan was not used until the Ming, whereas zhou has been in use since antiquity. In some 
regions, zhou is made by boiling the grain whereas xifan is made by adding water to the 
already cooked grain, or fan, to make it watery. 

Bai Juyi, Baishi changqing ji (Collected works of Bai Juyi), ZJGK, 604. 

It must be noted that in literary writings, it was a cliche for poets and essayists to describe 
how they ate fan with the liuchi spoon effortlessly. That is, whenever liuchi was used, 
they used the verb hua to go with it, even after, as we now believe, the spoon was no longer 
in use for transporting grain food. A search in ZJGK finds that the phrase appeared a total 
of 143 times {hualiuchi ninety-five times and liuchihua forty-eight times) in the texts from 
the Tang to the Qing. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

have also pointed out that porridge was popular during the Tang period 
because many believed that it had a medicinal effect, ideal for a patient. 
Archaeological excavations have provided confirmation: two types of 
spoons have appeared in Tang tombs, one has a shallower - almost flat - 
bowl and shorter handle and the other a deeper and larger bowl and a longer 
handle. The former is believed to be used for grain food whereas the latter is 
for drinking soup.'’° By contrast, the dagger-like bi with a sharp edge, 
ubiquitously seen in the Neolithic Age, had by and large disappeared. But 
the term bi remained in use, still referring to a spoon, for several centuries.'’^ 
In addition, Tang texts reveal that the decline of millet as the most 
important grain cereal was due as much to the growing appeal of wheat 
as to the spread of rice across China. Wheat and wheat-based foods 
entered Tang poetry quite frequently. Yet a number of Tang poems also 
describe rice farming in areas of North China where rice is rarely grown 
nowadays. Ennin, the Japanese monk, mentioned that rice porridge was 
typically provided at Buddhist temples as he crisscrossed Tang China. 
Thus during the Tang, while wheat consumption increased significantly, 
the government also encouraged rice farming in North China, especially in 
the Guanzhong region where the Tang capital Chang’an was located.'’^ 
Rice was then grown in Guanzhong, it seems, not only because the region 
was relatively moist, ideal for growing rice, but also because there was a 
great demand for it from the people working for the Tang government. As 
mentioned before, for the northern Chinese, eating rice had been tanta- 
mount to leading a good, even luxurious, life in China since the age of 
Confucius. Ennin’s diary recorded that the price of rice was still higher 
than that of millet in Tang China. One could imagine that officials 

Liu Pubing, TangSong yinshi wenhua bijiao yanjiu (A comparative study of food and 
drinking cultures in the Tang and Song periods) (Beijing: Zhongguo shehui kexue chu- 
banshe, 2010), 119-121. 

° Liu, Zhongguo zhu wenhuashi, 219-221. 

In his study of the food culture in Han China, H. T. Huang has also noticed the shift from 
dagger-shaped spoons to lacquered wooden ones. He noted that the latter first appeared in 
the late Zhou period and “reached the heights of popularity during the Han.” Huang, 
“Han Gastronomy,” 148. 

Ennin’s Diary, 31, 56, 66, 73-74, 157, 172. It should be noted that Ennin used the 
character zhou, which usually refers to rice porridge and which was what he often 
consumed at breakfast in China, though zhou could also be made of millet or other grains, 
which he mentioned on page 190. 

Wang, Zhonggu huabei yinshi wenhuade bianqian, 74-80; and Liu, TangSong yinshi 
wenhua bijiao yanjiu, 57-58. 

Ennin s Diary, 190. 

Dish, rice or noodlef The changing use of chopsticks 


working in the Tang capital, many of whom had succeeded in the civil 
service examination instituted by the government, might be interested in 
eating rice to show their success in climbing up the social ladder. Du Fu 
(71Z-770), a famous poet, might not be the best example, for his official 
career in the Tang government did not go very far. Yet he left a poem about 
eating rice at a dinner near the Tang capital Chang’an. As a northerner, Du 
was very impressed by the quality of rice; he compared rice grains to the 
white stones (yunzv, lit. small cloud) in the Go game (tveiqi), a popular 
chess game in China and East Asia. In his later life, Du spent several years 
in Chengdu, Sichuan, a rice-growing region in the upper reaches of the 
Yangzi River. But to stick to the tradition, Du scooped rice with a spoon, 
according to his poem.*’® 

In his study of the Tang food system, Wang Lihua has argued that 
since North China was a political center during the period, “rice should 
have occupied a much higher ratio of all grain production than it does 
today.” During the Tang, he explains, irrigation was developed to an 
unprecedented level to nourish rice paddies. But court records from the 
period also contained a number of legal disputes over the irrigated water 
because some used it instead to drive the waterwheel to power the 
flourmill. The competition for water usage, states Wang, reflected the 
growing interest in rice farming as opposed to wheat milling. Edward 
H. Shafer also recognizes that rice was grown more than before in North 
China. But he maintains that “even through rice was grown in the north 
in Tang times, it could not rival wheat and millet there. So in North 
China, the fan in the Tang remained mostly made of millet and wheat, 
instead of rice. And because of the draw of tradition, even if people 
ate rice, they might continue employing a spoon. Xue Eingzhi’s case is 
quite telling. Having grown up in Eujian where rice was the staple grain, 
he would have known that he could use chopsticks to move rice as 
effectively as the spoon. But he says in his poem that he used a spoon 
in eating fan. 

Using examinations to recruit government officials was first attempted during the Sui 
dynasty in the sixth century. But it was during the Tang period that the system became 
fully institutionalized. Tang records show a dramatic increase in rice {from 200,000 shi to 
over three million shi) being transported from the south to the north from the early Tang to 
the late Tang. See Li Hu, ed. HanTang yinshi wenhuashi (A cultural history of the food 
culture in Han and Tang China) (Beijing: Beijing shifan daxue chubanshe, 1998), 13. 
Yang Lun, Dushi jingquan (Annotated poems of Du ¥u),juan 2, ZJGK, 39. 

Wang, Zhonggu huabei yinshi wenhuade bianqian, 75. 

Edward H. Shafer, “T’ang,” Food in Chinese Culture^ 89. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

In sum, from Han to Tang China, several notable changes took 
place in agriculture and food culture, which impacted utensil use. 
Early in the period, using spoons and chopsticks, rather than one’s 
hands, to eat a meal, became a well-established dining habit in Chinese 
society. Throughout the period, the spoon was a primary eating imple- 
ment, for millet more or less retained its importance as a grain cereal and 
required the spoon to transport it for convenience as well as for modish- 
ness (as it was recommended by ancient Confucian rituals). But thanks 
to the broad appeal and increasing variety of floured wheat foods, 
especially the popularity of noodles, people all across China seemed to 
realize the usefulness of chopsticks and apparently began to use the 
instrument more than before in conveying both grain and nongrain 
foods. As a result, chopsticks gained significant inroads in undermining 
the spoon’s primacy as a utensil. Little wonder that in both stone carv- 
ings and mural paintings of the Han and the Tang, chopsticks were often 
depicted as the main - sometimes the only - utensil in many eating scenes 
(Plate lo). Thanks to the widespread influence of Tang culture in Asia, 
the growing popularity of chopsticks also became extended beyond the 
Tang territorial border, into such regions as the Mongolian pastureland 
in the north, the Korean Peninsula and the Japanese islands in the north- 
east and east, and the Indochina Peninsula in the south. A chopsticks 
cultural sphere thus began to take shape, albeit with discernible varia- 
tions in time and place. 


Forming a chopsticks cultural sphere: Vietnam, 
Japan, Korea and beyond 

The harmony between Oriental food and chopsticks cannot be merely 
functional, instrumental; the foodstuffs are cut up so they can be grasped 
by the sticks, but also the chopsticks exist because the foodstuffs are cut 
into small pieces; one and the same movement, one and the same form 
transcends the substance and its utensil: division. 

Roland Barthes, Empire of Signs 

In 1996 Samuel P. Huntington (1927-2008), then professor of govern- 
ment at Harvard University, published The Clash of Civilizations and 
the Remaking of World Order, a New York Times bestseller that year. 
Huntington argued that three major civilizations had been formed in the 
world: the Western Judeo-Christian civilization, the East Asian Confucian 
civilization and the Middle Eastern Islamic civilization. Interestingly, if this 
tripartite partition could indeed map out the world, then these civilizations 
are distinguished from one another not only in terms of religious tradi- 
tions, cultural ideals and political institutions (factors Huntington consid- 
ers most seriously) but they also differ in culinary practices and dining 
customs, which are little noted in Huntington’s book. As mentioned in the 
Introduction, from the 1970s, food historians in Japan, such as Isshiki 
Hachiro, and American historian Lynn White in the 1980s had already 
observed that three dining customs, or food cultural spheres, existed in the 
world: (i) eating with hand(s); (2) eating with forks, knives and spoons; 
and (3) eating with chopsticks. Isshiki detailed that the first sphere, con- 
stituting about forty percent of the world’s population, consists of peoples 
living in South and Southeast Asia, the Middle and Near East, and Africa. 
The second sphere, about thirty percent of the population, is composed of 



Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

the peoples of Europe and North and South America. And the third, or 
the chopsticks cultural sphere, constituting another thirty percent of the 
world population, includes the Chinese, the Japanese, Koreans and the 
Vietnamese. These marked differences in dining customs, Isshiki further 
explained, reflect and extend the differences in food intake (e.g. whether 
one eats meat or not and whether the grain staple is a plant or a root tuber), 
food preparation, and eating etiquette and table manners. ‘ Geographically 
and demographically speaking, Isshiki’s, White’s and Huntington’s divi- 
sions of the world are identical. 

Yet these overarching generalizations tend to overlook subtle differ- 
ences within a particular sphere. While using chopsticks to carry food is 
a distinct dietary custom, their users have, at times, also employed other 
implements to assist the transportation. An observant visitor to the chop- 
sticks cultural sphere may see visible differences in what kinds of chop- 
sticks people use and how they use them, whether or not they also use a 
spoon, and when and how. For instance, although chopsticks are made of 
various materials, wooden chopsticks seem most popular, preferred par- 
ticularly by the Japanese. In an up-market restaurant in Japan, customers 
are usually given a pair of whitewood chopsticks, possibly of willow tree 
wood, whereas on the same occasion in China, its customers more likely 
find on the table a colorful porcelain spoon and a pair of chopsticks that 
have either a gold-plated top or a top decorated with exquisite engravings. 
In Korea, employing both a spoon and a pair of chopsticks is seen every- 
where, and the implements are usually made of metal, such as stainless 
steel. Beginning in ancient China, besides wood, the Chinese used bamboo 
to make chopsticks, and both remain popular today. Bamboo chopsticks 
are widely used in Vietnam too, since the plant is common. Yet Vietnam 
is also well known for exporting high-quality rosewood chopsticks to 
the rest of Asia. While the Vietnamese use bamboo chopsticks whereas 
the Japanese wooden ones, they do share one thing in common: compared 
with other chopsticks users, both the Vietnamese and the Japanese tend to 
take chopsticks as the only utensil in dining, without the spoon. How do 
these differences occur? Have they changed over time? This chapter will 
address these questions while covering and discussing the history and the 
characteristics of the chopsticks cultural sphere. 

In describing the formation of the chopsticks cultural sphere, it seems 
logical to begin with Vietnam, for among all of China’s neighbors the 
Vietnamese could be the earliest in adopting the dining custom of utensil 

^ Isshiki, Hashi no Bunkashi, 36-39. 

Forming a chopsticks cultural sphere 


use, and chopsticks use in particular, from China. In his survey of 
Vietnamese history and culture, Nguyen Van Huyen (1908-1975), an 
eminent historian in Vietnam, describes the dietary custom in his country 
as follows: 

At meals, the dishes are placed on a wooden or copper tray which is displayed in the 
middle of the bed. The participants eat while sitting around with crossed legs. Each 
has his bowl and his pair of chopsticks. The dishes are common for all, one uses 
one’s chopsticks to take foodstuffs which are prepared and cut into small pieces.^ 

This description, without question, can be readily applied to characterizing 
the cooking and dining practices in China. This is understandable because 
since antiquity, the Vietnamese foodway, or that of mainland Southeast 
Asia in general, has shared resounding similarities with that of South 
China. Meanwhile, Vietnam was distinguished from its Southeast Asian 
neighbors in history: from approximately the third century bce to about 
the tenth century, various Chinese governments exercised their control 
over the land, especially in the north, making Vietnam much more recep- 
tive to Chinese influences. 

As in South China, or the Yangzi River or Pearl River regions, rice has 
been the dominant grain crop in Vietnam. Although the earliest rice remains 
have so far been found in the Yangzi River Delta, it is believed that rice had 
been grown in Vietnam no later than in South China, in the Neolithic Age. 
Vietnam indeed was one of the origin places of Asian rice. “Wet-rice 
cultivation,” writes Francesca Bray, “established in the Red River Delta 
by the mid-third millennium bc, or perhaps earlier.”^ The Red River Delta 
produces rice as its main crop because the region, especially the Mekong 
River Delta, is crisscrossed by a maze of rivers and lakes. Fish thus also 
became the main produce in Vietnam. When characterizing the food culture 
of South China, Sima Qian, the Han historian, states that “rice was the chief 
grain and fish stew the main dish.” This statement could readily apply to the 
food culture in Viemam, just as Nguyen Van Huyen’s description of 
Vietnamese dining customs could be applied to the Chinese’s. 

Like the Chinese living in the reaches of the Yangzi River, the 
Vietnamese take rice as their daily food and fish-based dishes as their 
main nongrain food. In the Vietnamese language, a plethora of proverbs 
describe the centrality of rice and fish. “Nothing is [better than] rice with 

^ Nguyen Van Huyen, The Ancient Civilization of Vietnam (Hanoi: The Gioi Publishers, 
15195), 212. 

^ Francesca Bray, The Rice Economies: Technology and Development in Asian Societies 
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 9-10. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

fish,” one maxim goes, “Nothing is [better than] a mother with a child.” 
And “If you have rice,” goes another, “you’ve all. You are short of rice, 
short of all.” For the Vietnamese, to treat a guest is to treat them with rice 
and fish. “When you go out,” they tell the visitor, “you can eat fish; when 
you come in, you can consume [glutinous] rice.” Many varieties of rice are 
thus cultivated in Vietnam. Some are planted on the dry upland as in the 
lowland paddies. A Vietnamese aphorism states, “If you have upland rice, 
you can sleep peacefully; if you have lowland rice, you can sleep up your 
fill.” More interestingly, an adage in muong Deng, a rice-producing region, 
suggests that stew, too, is a well-liked dish: “If you want to eat rice, go 
to muong Deng; if you want to eat keng [geng], go to muong Ha.”"^ That 
is, as in South China, fish stew may well be the most common dish for 
the locals. 

Many of the rice-eating customs among the Vietnamese and the 
southern Chinese are also comparable. For example, they both cultivate 
glutinous rice (nuo in Chinese) and regard it as a festive and ritual food. 
In Vietnamese, the glutinous rice is gao nep, while the ordinary type is gao 
te. In celebrating the New Year in China and Vietnam, which occurs on the 
first day of the first month of the lunar calendar in both countries, steamed 
glutinous rice cakes are indispensable. These rice cakes take various 
forms in China, whereas in Vietnam one kind of rice cake, or banh Tet, 
is particularly reserved for the New Year celebration. Nir Avieli, an 
anthropologist at the University of Pittsburgh, has called banh Tet an 
“iconic festive dish,” essential to the Vietnamese national identity. In 
preparing the banh Tet, the Vietnamese usually first soak the glutinous 
rice in water overnight and then mix it with pork and green beans before 
wrapping and tying it up with bamboo leaves and splinters. It is then 
cooked for many hours in water before serving. ^ The way to prepare and 
cook the rice cake is identical to how the southern Chinese make zongzi, a 
ritual food now most consumed during the Dragon Boat Festival across 
South China and Taiwan. The zongzi is for commemorating the death of 
Qu Yuan (339-Z78 bce), an official-cum-poet in the State of Chu, one of 
the Warring States in China. But in the southern part of Zhejiang, which 

Quotes from Nir Avieli, “Eating Lunch and Recreating the Universe: Food and Cosmology in 
Hoi An, Vietnam,” Everyday Life in Southeast Asia,, eds. Kathleen M. Adams & Kathleen 
A. Gillogly (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011), 222; and Nguyen Xuan Hien, 
“Rice in the Life of the Vietnamese Thay and Their Folk Literature,” trans. Tran Thi Giang 
Lien & Hoang Luong, Anthropos, Bd. 99 H. i (2004), 111-141. 

^ Nir Avieli, “Vietnamese New Year Rice Cakes: Iconic Festive Dishes and Contested 
National Identity,” Ethnology,, 44:2 (Spring 2005), 167-188. 

Forming a chopsticks cultural sphere 


bordered Nanyue {Nam Viet in Vietnamese), an early Chinese kingdom in 
Vietnam, there has also been a time-honored custom to eat zongzi during 
the New Year season. 

Rice cakes can also be made with rice flour. While the people in North 
China grind wheat grain into flour and make doughy food, the southern 
Chinese and the Vietnamese powder rice, their grain staple. Powdered rice, 
especially the glutinous variety, is used to make either salted or sugared 
cakes as principal food offerings at cultural and religious ceremonies. 
They are not wrapped in leaves but often colored with some leaf extract. 
Since these cakes are mostly steamed, chopsticks might be the ideal tool 
to pick them up in the steamer when hot. As celebratory food, however, 
these cakes are often eaten after the ceremony. In other words, they are not 
eaten hot, so one can hold them in one’s hands. Rice cakes are a common 
food not only in South China and Vietnam, but also across Southeast Asia, 
where rice is grown and where rice cakes are more customarily eaten with 

With rice flour, one can also make rice noodles. Rice noodles are trans- 
ported with chopsticks in China, Vietnam and even elsewhere in Southeast 
Asia. In recent decades, pho (rice vermicelli), a noodle soup often served 
with thinly sliced beef, Asian basil, mint leaves, lime and bean sprouts, 
has become arguably the most famous Vietnamese food outside Vietnam. 
But in fact, rice noodle soups, served with different ingredients, are a 
staple dish across South and Southwest China and many other places 
in Southeast Asia. Rice noodles can be served with a broth, as in the case 
of pho, but they can also be stir-fried over high heat, as in the case of char 
kway teow, a common noodle dish in Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia and 
Indonesia. Char kway teow is usually cooked with beansprouts, whole 
prawns, Chinese chives, and soy and chili sauces. Both pho and char kway 
teow registered culinary influences from China; the word pho is derived 
from fun, or “rice noodle” in Cantonese, and char kway teow comes from 
chhd-koe-tidu in Hokkien, a language spoken by the Chinese in southern 
Fujian. It is likely that emigrant Chinese communities initially brought 
these noodle dishes to Southeast Asia.'’ 

Migration, whether forced or voluntary, was an important means 
of intercultural exchange." In early imperial China, after a successful 

^ See entries on pho and char kway teow on Wikipedia. As for the origin of pho, the entry says 
that the term might be derived from the French word pot-au-feu (beef stew). 

^ Jack Goody notes how immigration caused the spread of foods around the modern world, 
which, it seems to me, was also true in ancient ages. Food and Love: A Cultural Fiistory of 
East and West (London: Verso, 1998), 161-171. 

72 . 

Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

campaign the Qin and Han dynasties often created garrison forces, which 
later became emigrant communities, on the newly conquered borderland 
regions for the purposes of defense and colonization. In historical texts 
from the period, such as the work by Sima Qian, the areas that encom- 
passed the whole littoral zone of Southeast China, extending from the 
modern Zhejiang and Fujian Provinces to the Red River Valley in northern 
Vietnam, are referred to under an umbrella term Yue. In the Warring States 
period, the State of Yue, centering in Zhejiang, was once a strong power. 
Yue is written as Yiet in Vietnamese and Vietnam is called Yuenan in 
Chinese, which literally means “south of Yue.” After Qinshihuang, the 
founding emperor of the Qin dynasty (2Z1-206 bce), unified China 
proper, or North China, he immediately sent five armies to conquer 
the Yue lands. Zhao Tuo (c. 230-137 bce; Trieu Da in Vietnamese) 
commanded one of them, and succeeded in establishing military rule in 
northern Vietnam. But the quick dissolution of the Qin dynasty meant that 
Zhao was left in full control of the Qin soldiers in Vietnam. By severing his 
ties with China, or the newly established Han dynasty, and by expanding 
deeper into southern Vietnam, Zhao subsequently founded an independ- 
ent kingdom - Nanyue {Nam Viet in Vietnamese), which again means 
“south of Yue.” 

In order to defend his kingdom and consolidate his power, it was said 
that Zhao Tuo “sealed the mountain passes leading north and eliminated 
all officials not personally loyal to him.” But in his later years, Zhao 
resumed his relations with China by acknowledging Han suzerainty over 
his kingdom. Several decades after Zhao’s death in in bce, the Kingdom 
of Nanyue (or the Trieu dynasty in Vietnamese history) came to an end. On 
its demise, the Han government divided the old land of Nanyue into seven 
prefectures - two of them were located in modern Vietnam. The passes 
leading to the north, now placed under the jurisdiction of provinces to the 
north, were reopened, ensuring the Chinese influence would flow more 
freely into Vietnam.^ This situation remained more or less unchanged 
for the following millennium. During the period, there appeared some 
autonomous Vietnamese governments. All of them were short-lived, until 
Ngo Quyen (897-944) established his independent dynasty in 938. Of all 
the lands in the chopsticks cultural sphere, Vietnam thus received 
most Chinese influence. While studying culinary cultures in mainland 

* Keith Weller Taylor, The Birth of Vietnam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 
1983), 42. 

^ Ibid., 27-30. 

Forming a chopsticks cultural sphere 


Southeast Asia, Penny Van Esterik comments that “As the most Sinicized 
country in the region, Vietnam adapted principles of Chinese cuisine and 
today is the only country in Southeast Asia to rely primarily on chopsticks 
for all meals.” She also points out that in areas outside Vietnam in 
Southeast Asia, chopsticks use is limited to Chinese meals and noodle 

In their study of the chopsticks cultural sphere, Mukai Yukiko and 
Hashimoto Keiko acknowledge that the Chinese cultural influence was a 
crucial element in the Vietnamese adoption of chopsticks as a dining tool 
necessary for conveying meals; from what is discussed above, this eating 
custom might have taken root in Vietnam when it first came under Chinese 
rule. Not only have bamboo chopsticks been the most common variety in 
both countries, the Chinese and Vietnamese chopsticks also share similar 
designs and characteristics. More specifically, the chopsticks are usually 
round at the bottom but square on top, a design which reflects and extends, 
maintain Mukai and Hashimoto, the cosmological belief of “squared earth 
and round heaven” from ancient China. And the lengths of the chopsticks 
in Vietnam and China are also comparable; averaging 25 cm long (if not 
longer), they are lengthier than, for instance, the ones preferred by the 
Japanese and Koreans. And as in China, wealthy Vietnamese also desire 
ivory chopsticks. By comparison, such preference never took root in Japan, 
Mukai’s and Hashimoto’s home country." Of course, geography plays a 
role in this case - elephants existed - and still exist - in areas of Southeast 
and South Asia, as well as across China in earlier times, whereas they were 
never found in Japan. 

Despite the above differences, the foodway in the Japanese archipelago 
is rather similar to that of South China and Vietnam. Rice and fish 
also figure centrally in Japanese food, thanks to the abundant water 
resources and generally mild climate in Japan’s main islands (Hokkaido 
is an exception). As mentioned above, the Vietnamese and Japanese could 
be called exclusive chopsticks users, for the eating tool is quite sufficient, 
and efficient, for conveying their daily meals, which consist usually of 
boiled rice and fish-based dishes. Isshiki Hachiro has argued that it is due 
to the Japanese fondness for rice and fish that from early on, they turned to 
chopsticks as their eating impliment and turned their back on forks and 
knives. For not only can chopsticks transport rice from the bowl to the 
mouth, he explains, they are also convenient and effective for separating 

Van Esterik, Food Culture in Southeast Asia, 5. 

Mukai 6c Hashimoto, 136-139. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

and removing bones from the fish meat, the most common food ingredient 
in Japanese cookery/^ Isshiki’s explanation, obviously, needs qualifica- 
tion because rice and fish are also central to Southeast Asian cuisines, but 
the Vietnamese are the only chopstick users in the region. Moreover, 
although the Japanese are well known for their fondness for rice, some 
research, such as that by Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, an anthropology profes- 
sor at the University of Wisconsin, has found that before the mid- 
nineteenth century, ordinary Japanese did not, or could not afford to, eat 
rice on a daily basis. Instead it was quite common for them to mix rice with 
red beans and other ingredients. In other words, it is a myth that the 
Japanese have always been committed rice eaters; some may even argue 
that their rice fondness reflects a longing for the luxury.'^ 

If the Vietnamese and Japanese are exclusive chopsticks users today, 
the latter did not use the utensil until about the seventh century. 
Information about the early history of Japan is found in Chinese histor- 
ical texts. Chen Shou’s History of the Three Kingdoms of the third 
century is an example, which contains descriptions of certain aspects of 
the Japanese life of the period. Chen records that the Japanese grew rice 
and hemp, and that they bred silkworms on mulberry trees to produce 
silk. As for their food habits, according to Chen, the Japanese used their 
hands to bring foods from wooden bowls or bamboo baskets to their 
mouth. If this was the case, then it did not change for several centuries. In 
the History of the Sui (Sui shu), compiled between 621 and 636 by court 
historians in Tang China, the dietary customs in Japan are described as 
follows: “The Japanese usually did not have trays and/or plates; holding 
food instead in leaves, they used their hands to carry them to their 
mouths. ” In both accounts, the Japanese are depicted as skilled fishermen 
who preferred fish and clams to animal meat. Chen Shou’s book even 
points out that large land animals, such as cattle, horse, tiger, leopard and 
sheep, were nonexistent in Japan. 

While accepting the information given by the History of the Sui, Mukai 
Yukiko and Hashimoto Keiko have surmised that beginning in the seventh 

Isshiki, Hashi no Bunkashi, 40. 

Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, Rice as Self: Japanese Identities through Time (Princeton: 
Princeton University Press, 1993); and Penelope Francks, “Consuming Rice: Food, 
‘Traditional’ Products and the History of Consumption in Japan,” Japan Forum,, 19:2 
(2007), 151-155. 

Chen, San’guozhi - “Wei Shu” (History of Wei), HDWZK, 855; and Wei Zheng, Suishu 
(History of the Sui dynasty) - “Dongyi - woguo” (Barbarians in the east - Japan), 
HDWZK, 1827. 

Forming a chopsticks cultural sphere 


century, some upper-class Japanese were possibly already turning to chop- 
sticks and spoons for eating meals, for the Tang history records that in 607 
and 608, Ono no Imoko, a Japanese court official, was twice sent by 
Empress Suiko as an official envoy (Kenzuishi) to meet Emperor Yang of 
the Sui dynasty in China. Ono no Imoko’s trips marked the beginning of a 
series of missions launched by the Japanese government to learn about 
Chinese culture. While in China (and taught by the Chinese), Ono no 
Imoko and his entourage learned for the first time how to use chopsticks 
and a spoon as a set of eating implements. And on Ono no Imoko’s first 
return trip. Emperor Y ang of Sui China also sent his envoy Pei Shiqing (Hai 
Seisei in Japanese) with twelve staff members to accompany him back to 
Japan. Both Pei and Ono no Imoko introduced the custom of using utensils 
for eating food to the Japanese court, a custom that was embraced with 
great enthusiasm. 

In 618 the Sui dynasty was replaced by the Tang in China. But the 
Japanese enthusiasm for importing Chinese culture did not wane; rather, it 
intensified. As a result, Chinese influences - tairikufu (lit. mainland wind) 
or tofu (lit. Tang wind) in Japanese - swept over the Japanese islands and 
continued unabated until the later part of the ninth century. As Prince 
Shotoku (57Z-62Z) took a strong interest in Tang political institutions and 
legal code, his effort inspired others to emulate and import other aspects of 
Chinese culture into Japan. The official missions sent by the Japanese court 
to China were now called Kentoshi, reflecting the Sui and Tang dynastic 
transition. After a total of thirteen missions, the last Kentoshi mission went 
to China in 893. Mahayana Buddhism, which had reached Japan via 
Korea previously, developed a stronger presence in Japan through those 
envoys as well as through the Chinese missionaries who managed to cross 
the sea and land in Japan. In addition, Japanese Buddhist converts, such as 
Ennin, made trips to visit China. While the Japanese court and aristocrats 
became enthralled by Chinese culture, the ordinary Japanese still used their 
hands to convey food in the period. Verses in the Collection of Ten 
Thousand Leaves (Manyoshu), compiled in the mid-eighth century, 
described how the Japanese placed foods in baskets woven from bamboo 
peelings at home and used tree leaves to hold them while away from home. 
This description echoed the record in the Fiistory of the Sui quoted above. 

Archaeology shows that chopsticks began to appear in seventh-century 
Japan, as compared to only spoons in previous ages. Excavations of Yayoi 
cultural remains (c. third century bce) in Toro, Shizuoka and in Karako, 

Mukai 6c Hashimoto, Hashi, 44-45; and Isshiki, Hashi no Bunkashi, 54. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

Nara, for example, yielded only wooden spoons or ladles, which might be 
serving utensils. (Several wooden sticks were found in Toro. They were 
3 5 cm in length and 0.2-0. 6 cm in diameter; it is believed that they were not 
eating utensils.) Yet in 646, or several decades after Ono no Imoko’s 
mission to China, Japan produced what scholars believe to be the earliest 
example of chopsticks, suggesting a connection between chopsticks use 
and Chinese cultural influence. These chopsticks were found in the remains 
of the Itabuki Palace of the Asuka City in Nara, an imperial capital 
between 592 and 693. Made of cypress wood (hinoki in Japanese), a 
common evergreen tree in Japan, these chopsticks were thicker in the 
middle with either one pointed end or both ends tapering off in shape. 
Their length was between 30 and 33 cm and the diameter of their pointed 
ends was between 0.3 and i.o cm. Another group of chopsticks surfaced in 
the remains of the Fujiwara Palace of the Fujiwara City, which was Japan’s 
capital between 694 and 710. These chopsticks were also made of hinoki 
wood, the same material used in constructing the Palace. Their shapes, 
with two pointed ends, also resembled the ones found in the Itabuki Palace. 
But their length was much shorter (between 15 and 23 cm) and their 
thickness at the bottom was between 0.4 and 0.7 cm. These differences 
have led Mukai and Hashimoto to speculate that these two groups of 
chopsticks had been made for different purposes. Those found at the 
Itabuki Palace were longer serving utensils in ritual ceremonies whereas 
the ones in Fujiwara Palace were more likely used for meals and thrown 
away by the workers who constructed the Palace.^*’ 

In 710 the imperial court moved again, from Fujiwara to Heijo, located 
in today’s Nara Prefecture. And in Heijo, which served as the capital city 
between 710 and 784, a total of fifty-four hinoki chopsticks were discov- 
ered in the ditches and wells around the Heijo Palace where the imperial 
kitchen was located. All of them had a similar shape: thicker in the middle 
with one or two tapered-off ends. Their lengths varied from 1 3 cm to 2 1 cm 
and their diameter was about 0.5 cm. In 1988 an even greater discovery 
was made in Heijo: in the vicinity of Todaiji, one of the oldest and biggest 
Buddhist temples built in the Nara Period, no fewer than 200 hinoki 
chopsticks were found, with designs similar to the ones unearthed earlier. 
They were about 25 cm long. Their pointed lower end was 0.5 cm and their 
thicker and rounder top was 1.5 cm in diameter. Mukai and Hashimoto 
again believe that the chopsticks found in both the Heijo Palace and Todaiji 
were likely abandoned by the workers after being used as eating utensils. 


Mukai 8 c Hashimoto, Hashi, 21-22. 

Forming a chopsticks cultural sphere 


Archaeologists also uncovered wooden chopsticks in Iba, Shizuoka, the 
remains of a cultural site of the late eighth century. Of the same hinoki 
cypress wood, these chopsticks were between 2z and z6 cm long, with a 
diameter of 0.6 cm. Carefully polished, they were thicker in the middle - 
polyhedral in shape - with two slightly sharpened ends. This finding sug- 
gested that by the eighth century, chopsticks use perhaps was no longer 
simply a lavish and exotic custom for the royal family and Buddhist 

The characteristics of all the chopsticks found from early Japan were 
similar to those uncovered in Sui and Tang China: they were rounder 
in the middle with either one pointed lower end or with two tapered-off 
ends. The Tang chopsticks also varied in length, between 18 and 33 cm. 
Averaging 24 cm, they were longer than their counterparts from earlier 
periods in China. Thus the discovery of wooden chopsticks in Japan is 
significant for studying the history of chopsticks in East Asia generally. 
First, from the same period, or Sui-Tang China, few wooden chopsticks 
have been unearthed in China; wooden chopsticks mostly appear in 
Tang literature, in addition to those made of gold, jade, rhinoceros 
horn and aromatic wood.^^ Second, whether wood or metal, many of 
the chopsticks found in Japan and China from the period share the same 
design: a round body and two tapered-off ends. While being copied and 
retained in Japan (for reasons to be discussed below and in later chap- 
ters), however, this design seems prevalent only in Sui-Tang China, and 
not in later periods. The other shape, with only one tapered-off end at the 
bottom, became more common in China. Their other end, or the sticks’ 
top, became four-sided, possibly to prevent chopsticks rolling off the 
table. This type of chopsticks has also been quite popular in Vietnam, 
as mentioned before. And third, if some of the Japanese wooden chop- 
sticks were indeed being thrown away by construction workers working 
on the site, then those might well be the earliest disposable chopsticks in 
the world. 

Beginning in the eighth century, chopsticks also appeared in Japanese 
texts. The Records of Ancient Matters (Kojiki) and the Chronicles of Japan 
(Nihon shoki), two of the earliest histories from the early part of the 
century, both contain stories featuring chopsticks. The utensil is also 
mentioned in other texts. In their account book, for example, the 
Buddhist monks in Todaiji record that the Temple received tortoiseshell 
chopsticks as a donation. In addition, the record shows that a special pair 


Ibid., 22-24. 

Liu, Zhongguo zhu wenhuashi^ 222-223. 

Ibid., 221-222. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

of wooden chopsticks, made of ziricote wood (a tree that supposedly is 
native to South America) was kept in its stores. Ironically, these two 
unusual pairs have not survived today, while the much more mundane 
hinoki chopsticks, discarded perhaps by the workers or monks after use, 
were later unearthed around the Temple, as mentioned above. 

The records at this Buddhist Temple do suggest that in the period, the 
Japanese continued to bring back chopsticks from outside Japan, or 
hakurai no hashi (lit. overseas chopsticks). And these imported chopsticks 
were made of various materials, including silver and various types of 
alloyed copper. The Procedures of the Engi Era (Engishiki), a ninth- 
century compendium of rituals and laws compiled by imperial fiat in 
Japan, shows that like their counterparts in China and also in Korea, the 
Japanese upper class also favored metal chopsticks, such as those of silver 
and cupronickel. Since the metal chopsticks might be imports. The 
Procedures of the Engi Era specifies that these were reserved only for 
Japanese royalty and the top noble class. Anyone below rank six was 
only supposed to use the bamboo variety. Yet the bamboo chopsticks 
might also have been imports, for no bamboo chopsticks have hitherto 
surfaced in archaeological sites of early Japan. Bamboo does grow in 
Japan. But bamboo chopsticks have not been as common in Japan as in 
China and Vietnam (a subject deserving some explanation below). 

When Ono no Imoko first brought chopsticks from China to Japan, he 
demonstrated their use together with the spoon, for this was how he 
learned to use them back in China. During the following two or three 
centuries, or from Nara (710-794) to Heian Japan (794-1185), Japanese 
royalty and aristocrats continually followed this time-honored Chinese 
custom. The Tale of the Hollow Tree (Utsubo Monogatari), a literary 
text describing the noble life in Japan written in 970, records an instance 
where after a nobleman’s wife gave birth to her child, the family received a 
variety of gifts - cooked dishes and food vessels and utensils. Both silver 
chopsticks and spoons were included in the utensils. In The Pillow Book 
(Makura no soshi), another literary text from the tenth and early eleventh 
centuries, the author, a court lady, says that as she was writing, she heard 
clanking noises from the next room where some others were using both 
metal spoons and chopsticks to dine.^^ Over time, however, the Chinese 
influence waned in Japan. Metal utensils became less common, as did the 
custom of using both a spoon and chopsticks as a set in dining. According 

Mukai 6c Hashimoto, Hashi, z6. Ibid., 31, 49. 

Isshiki, Hashi no Bunkashi, Mukai 6c Hashimoto, 47. 

Forming a chopsticks cultural sphere 


to the Assorted Records of Kitchen Matters (Chuji ruiki), a recipe book 
from the thirteenth century, silver chopsticks were only for eating appe- 
tizers whereas the wooden variety was for transferring rice, the main grain 
food. And the two varieties also differed in length: the silver was longer and 
the wooden shorter.^'* 

The decline of Chinese influence after Heian Japan might have caused a 
decreased interest, or disinterest, among the Japanese in making bamboo 
chopsticks. The Japanese had used bamboo to make household items. 
The History of the Sui and the Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves both 
record that the Japanese made bamboo baskets to hold food, a tradition 
that still can be seen in some parts of Japan today. Bamboo is portrayed 
positively in Japanese literature and folklore. The Tale of the Bamboo 
Cutter (Taketori monogatari), the oldest extant monogatari, a special 
literary genre in Japan, contains a well-known bamboo cutter story. One 
day in the bamboo forest, the bamboo cutter discovered a beautiful girl 
inside the stalk of a bamboo plant and he brought her home. While raising 
her with his wife as their daughter, he always found gold in the stalks of 
bamboo plants whenever he went to cut them. When the girl came of age, 
her beauty attracted many suitors, including even the reigning emperor. 
But she rejected all of them and explained that, as a goddess from the 
moon, she had to leave the earth and return there. And she did exactly that 
to end the story. 

Since stories about a bamboo cutter also appear in the poems of the 
Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves, this folktale could have had a 
Japanese origin. Meanwhile, the unfolding of the story might have also 
registered Chinese influences. Japanese researchers have lately pointed out 
that the bamboo girl’s revelation as a moon goddess and her departure 
from the earth could have been adapted from Chinese folktales. The 
famous Chang’e legend, describing a young woman growing up on earth 
with aspirations to live on the moon - she eventually became the goddess 
there - was proverbial in China since antiquity. According to the Chinese 
fairytale, there was a woodcutter named Wu Gang living on the moon. In 
Sichuan, China, where bamboo is particularly common, there were also 
stories about a girl growing up in a bamboo stalk. 

Bamboo chopsticks appeared in the Records of Ancient Matters and 
the Chronicles of Japan. When Empress Jingu decided to invade Korea, 

"'t Ibid., 49. 

Cf. Ito Seiji, Kaguya-hime no tanjo: Kodai setsuwa no kigen (The birth of the bamboo girl: 
origins of ancient legends) (Tokyo: Kodansha, 1973). 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

she sought the gods’ blessings for her campaign. The Empress ordered her 
soldiers to burn a hinoki tree into ashes and throw them, together with 
plates made of kashiwa tree leaves (kashiwa is another evergreen cypress 
tree in Japan) and bamboo chopsticks, into the sea as offerings to the sea 
and mountain gods. These items, especially the bamboo chopsticks, floated 
in the sea, accompanying her fleet to the Korean Peninsula. All this 
worked; the Empress succeeded in her invasion and consequently ruled 
Korea in the early third century. Besides the legend, there is evidence that 
some chopsticks were made of bamboo in Japan. The manabashi, a kind of 
cooking chopsticks for preparing fish-based dishes, are a well-known 
example. The manabashi, which nowadays are more likely to be made of 
wood or even metal, are usually longer than the wooden chopsticks the 
Japanese use to eat food. 

However, Empress Jingu’s use of bamboo chopsticks is the only men- 
tion in the two early histories. In all the other mentions in the Records of 
Ancient Matters and the Chronicles of Japan, the chopsticks were made of 
wood. One story that is recorded in both texts says when Susano no 
Mikoto, a kami (deity in Japanese) was sent down from Heaven and 
walking along a river, he saw chopsticks flowing down in the stream. 
This sighting led him to believe that there must have been people living 
in the upper part of the river. He went upstream and did find a family. This 
story shows that by this time (or by the eighth century) when the two 
historical texts were compiled, the Japanese took it for granted that 
humans used chopsticks to eat food. Were those chopsticks floating in 
the river being used in pairs? One poem in the Collection of Ten Thousand 
Leaves offers an answer. It describes the sadness of a man over the loss of 
his brother. “Our parents raised both of us like a pair of chopsticks facing 
each other,” the man deplores, “how come my brother’s life was as 
ephemeral as the morning dew?”"^^ 

As Japan is a country boasting a high percentage of forestation of its 
land, wood is readily available throughout the Japanese archipelago. Thus, 
wooden chopsticks are most common in Japan. Cypress and pine trees 
are widely available; of the former, the Japanese favor hinoki and sugi 
cypresses. As evergreens, these trees have come to symbolize the vitality of 
life in Japanese culture. There is a tradition among the Japanese of worship- 
ing old trees by referring to them as shinboku (or divine trees), which often 
draw flocks of pilgrims. As such, chopsticks made of cypress wood receive 
high status, as opposed to those of other materials, bamboo included. 


Isshiki, Hashi no Bunkashi, 8-9. Mukai & Hashimoto, Hashi, 45-46. 

Forming a chopsticks cultural sphere 


Isshiki Hachiro in his book discusses the hashisugi shinko, or a worship 
of the chopsticks made of sugi cypress wood, practiced among many 
Japanese throughout the centuries. Besides sugi, other varieties of 
wood - for example, hinoki cypress and willow trees - are also commonly 
used in making celebratory chopsticks. 

Tree worship is a Shinto belief, and thus the Japanese fondness for 
wooden objects, and wooden chopsticks in particular, extends the influ- 
ence of Shintoism. According to Shintoism, trees (along with rocks, rivers, 
mountains, etc.) were one of the “natural forces” that carried the spirit 
of nature in the “land of the kami,” as Japan was referred to by Shinto 
believers. Trees have their own spirits, or kodama. To be close to and 
pay homage to the kodama, the Japanese only use undressed lumber to 
construct Shinto shrines. Inside the shrine, furniture and utensils are also 
mostly made of bare wood, without paint or lacquer, even though Japan 
was first known to the West as a country of lacquer paint and lacquerware. 
Occasionally, one can find bamboo objects at Shinto shrines, such as the 
ladles provided for the visitors for washing their hands before entering the 
shrine, but wooden objects are far more common. 

Shintoism has influenced Japanese chopsticks culture in many ways, 
including how chopsticks are made and how they are used. To prolong the 
life of wooden chopsticks, for instance, one can paint them with lacquer, a 
practice seen in both China and Japan. Lacquered chopsticks are known in 
Japanese as nuribashi, which has a number of varieties, depending on 
where they are made and what types of paint (lacquer being just one 
kind) are used in glossing them. But like the use of undressed wood at 
Shinto shrines, the unpainted and slightly polished whitewood chopsticks, 
or shirakibashi, are regarded as being of the highest status by the Japanese, 
perhaps because without paint, these whitewood chopsticks allow their 
users to have unimpeded communication with nature, or the tree spirit. As 
such, whitewood chopsticks, made of willow or cypress wood, have tradi- 
tionally been used at religious ceremonies in shrines and temples. The idea 
is that as kami and people form a connected living in the world, they also 
share their foods together - using whitewood chopsticks maximizes this 
connection. Hence these whitewood chopsticks are generally referred to as 
ohashi (honored chopsticks), but depending on their use, they can also be 
called shinhashi (divine chopsticks) or reibashi (spiritual chopsticks). Since 
the emperor in Japan is believed to be a Shinto deity, Japanese royalty also 
use whitewood chopsticks. 


Isshiki, Hashi no Bunkashi, 11-15. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

Buddhism also shaped the chopstick culture in Japan - their preference 
for whitewood chopsticks included - in important ways. Buddhist tenets 
shun worldly attachments, including meat and other lavish food, hence 
in Buddhist temples across Asia, monks and nuns eat simple meals, con- 
sisting mostly of porridge and vegetables. Ennin’s Diary mentions how the 
Japanese Buddhist was treated as such when he took lodging in Buddhist 
temples in Tang China. This emphasis on simple meals extends to simple 
utensils. Indeed, if chopsticks were to become the exclusive tool in convey- 
ing meals, it is quite likely that Buddhist monks piloted this practice before 
anyone else. And the most common chopsticks used by Buddhist monks 
are made of wood or other inexpensive materials. 

In the mid-eighth century, or about a century before Ennin went to 
China, Jianzhen (688-763), a Chinese Buddhist missionary, landed in 
Japan after several failed attempts, not long after chopsticks had been 
introduced to Japanese royalty and nobility. Tan Xiang, a private collector 
of chopsticks in China, speculates that as the Chinese monks dined with 
chopsticks, this exemplary dining style influenced the Japanese, causing a 
broad conversion. As Ono no Imoko taught the Japanese court to eat 
with utensils. Tan argues the Chinese Buddhist monks possibly helped 
spread the dining custom among the ordinary Japanese. Since a number of 
wooden chopsticks were unearthed at Todaiji, where Jianzhen had presided 
after arriving in Japan, Tan’s speculation becomes plausible. Buddhist influ- 
ence was also registered in Japanese culinary tradition. The famed kaiseki- 
ryori (kaiseki cuisine, a multi-course dinner) had originated in Buddhist 
temples. While the kaiseki-ryori has now become both exquisite and expen- 
sive, the utensil required for eating the meal remains a pair of plain white- 
wood chopsticks. Incidentally, Japanese chopsticks etiquette - placing 
chopsticks horizontally on the table and raising them politely with both 
hands before eating - has also been found in Buddhist temples elsewhere. 

The chopsticks used to eat kaiseki-ryori are also called rikyubashi, 
because Sen no Rikyu ( 1 5 22-1 59 1 ), a Zen Buddhist monk and tea master, 
gave the formal meal its name. The rikyubashi, or “rikyii chopsticks,” are 
thicker in the middle and thinner at both ends, resembling the design of the 
chopsticks uncovered from early Japan, as well as that of their counter- 
parts in Tang China. With two tapered-off ends, this style of chopsticks is 

Lan Xiang, Kuaizi, buzhishi kuaizi (Chopsticks, not only chopsticks) (Taipei: Maitian, 
2011), 271-274. Lan Xiang also points out that in Buddhist temples in China, monks 
place their chopsticks horizontally on the table and raise them with both hands before 
eating, 159. 

Forming a chopsticks cultural sphere 


also known as ryokuchibashi (lit. two-ended chopsticks), as opposed to 
katakuchibashi (lit. one-ended chopsticks) - chopsticks with only pointed 
bottoms. One reason for using rikyubashi, or ryokuchibashi, to eat the 
kaiseki-ryori, as one believes today, is that since the meal consists of several 
courses, one can use the chopsticks’ different ends to convey different food 
contents, and relish each dish in its purity. But the chopsticks, usually plain 
wood, are also required on other formal occasions, religious or celebra- 
tory, which will be discussed in later chapters. 

The idea of using different chopsticks to convey different food 
items did not start with kaiseki-ryori in Japan. The Assorted Records of 
Kitchen Matters, cited before, has already suggested that silver chop- 
sticks be used for appetizers but the wooden pair for rice. In later years, 
people used manabashi, or fish chopsticks, to convey seafood dishes and 
saibashi (lit. vegetable chopsticks) for vegetables. Both chopsticks are 
tapered off at one end, making them katakuchibashi-, only manabashi is 
longer than saibashi. During the Muromachi period (1337-1573), 
Japanese culinary practice reached a level of sophistication, marked by 
the creation of honzen ryori, a multi-course meal, even though the term 
literally means “main-course meal.” To eat a honzen ryori, one initially 
also employed both manabashi and saibashi; the former separated bones 
from fish or mined out meat in a clam whereas the latter gripped vegeta- 
bles. But toward the late sixteenth century, states Xu Jingbo, author of a 
history of Japanese food culture, most Japanese began to use only one 
pair of chopsticks to eat the meal. This pair tended to have sharply 
pointed ends for the convenience of eating seafood, as did manabashi, 
but were short in length like saibashi. This design remains popular in 
Japan today, distinguishing Japanese chopsticks from their counterparts 
in Asia (Plate 16).^° 

In the Korean Peninsula, chopsticks use possibly has a longer history than 
it does in Japan. Chopsticks were not the first eating tool used by Koreans; 
archaeological evidence indicates that the spoon was the first eating imple- 
ment used by people in the Korean Peninsula. The earliest spoon found in 
Korea was made of bone. It was located in the Rajin Remains of the 
Hamgyong Province in today’s North Korea dated 700-600 bce. In 
another archaeological site, in the Rakrang Prefecture near Pyongyang, 
lacquered wooden spoons were discovered, which were dated between 108 

Xu Jingbo, Riben yinshi wenhua: lishi yu xianshi {Food culture in Japan: past and present) 
(Shanghai: Shanghai renmin chubanshe, 2009), 87, 127. Also Isshiki, Hashi no Bunkashi, 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

and 313 BCE.^^ The earliest example of chopsticks, made of bronze, was 
dated in the early sixth century, or during Korea’s Three Kingdoms period 
(53-668), and was found in a royal tomb of a Baekje King, who ruled during 
501-523 CE. Baekje was one of the three kingdoms; the other two were 
Goguryeo and Silla. These chopsticks were uncovered together with some 
bronze spoons in the tomb, suggesting that the Korean court might have 
employed both of them for their meals. As evidence that this was an extension 
of the Chinese custom, these chopsticks were comparable in design to the 
Chinese chopsticks of the period. They were thicker and rounder in the middle 
with two slightly pointed ends - the top was o. 5 cm in diameter and the bottom 
was 0.3 cm in diameter. And they were approximately 21 cm long, within the 
range of the chopsticks found contemporaneously in China and Japan. 

Prior to the Three Kingdoms period, around the second century bce, 
Han China had established four military commanderies in the northern 
part of the Korean Peninsula, which were more or less in existence for 
approximately four centuries. Little evidence, however, suggests that these 
Chinese military presences in Korea had influenced the locals’ dining 
habits. In fact, since the Coguryeo Kingdom arose in the same area as 
early as the first century bce, one may surmise that these Han command- 
eries were in constant battle against Koreans throughout their existence. 
But the Baekje Kingdom, located in the southwest of the Peninsula, kept in 
contact with the Chinese regimes through the sea route during the post- 
Han periods, and to a lesser degree so did Silla. After the Tang dynasty rose 
to power in China, Tang rulers allied with Silla and put down both Baekje 
and Coguryeo, ending the Three Kingdoms period in Korea. As such, Tang 
historians described Coguryeo, Silla and Baekje, not only their contact 
with the dynasty but also their geography, culture and history. Yet the 
Chinese texts from the period make no comment on whether Koreans then 
used eating tools, except to say that they “liked to squat on the floor and 
eat food on short-legged tables. 

Since the Baekje Kingdom made regular contact with the Chinese 
government, sending tributes to the latter, could the chopsticks and spoons 
found in its king’s tomb be a return gift from a Chinese ruler? This like- 
lihood certainly exists, for there is no corroborating textual evidence that 
Koreans had applied eating utensils for meals. The history of the Three 
Kingdoms is also covered in the Korean historical texts - Kim Pu-sik’s 

Mukai & Hashimoto, Hashi, 14-20. 

Li, Beishi - “Gaogeli” (Goguryeo), HDWZK, 3116; and Wei, Suishu - “Dongyi-Gaoli” 
(Eastern barbarians - Goryeo), HDWZK, 1814. 

Forming a chopsticks cultural sphere 


Historical Records of the Three Kingdoms (Samguk sagi) and Iryon’s 
Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms (Samguk yusa), appearing respec- 
tively in the early twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. But neither men- 
tions that chopsticks had been used in the Three Kingdoms either. But 
toward the late Three Kingdoms period, Chinese influence had a stronger 
presence in the Peninsula. Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism all exerted 
their impact on shaping the fabric of Korean society, with a varying degree 
of regional characteristics. Moreover, in ending the Kingdom, the Tang 
army invaded and occupied part of the former Goguryeo territory. One 
could thus imagine that ordinary Koreans became exposed to Chinese 
dietary customs. In a word, most Koreans could have begun using eating 
tools around the sixth century. 

In the wake of the Tang dynasty’s fall, the Korean Peninsula saw the rise 
of a new dynasty - the Goryeo dynasty (918-139Z), unifying the land in 
936. Goryeo Korea was an important time in Korean history - the term 
“Korea” even stems from it. Many examples of chopsticks from this period 
have been discovered across the Peninsula. All these excavated chopsticks 
were made of silver, brass or other alloyed copper. Their shape took on 
that of the earlier examples, having a round or polyhedral body and two 
thinner ends. And wherever the chopsticks were found, there were always 
accompanying spoons for them; and the latter were usually made of the 
same material. All this suggests that the custom of utensil use became 
widely practiced among Koreans. And like the Ghinese in Tang China, 
when transporting food, Koreans at that time used both a spoon and 
chopsticks, a dining habit that is still recommended in Korean society 

Perhaps because the Korean Peninsula lies approximately on the same 
latitude as North China, the foodways in these two regions were/are 
similar. While failing to describe how Koreans in early days ate their 
meals, the Tang Chinese historical texts do record, rather consistently, 
that the Peninsula’s agronomy bore notable similarities to China’s. For 
instance, Li Yanshou’s History of the Northern Dynasties (Beishi), written 
in the mid-sixth century, describes that in Silla, “the land is fertile and 
crops are planted in both wet and dry fields. Silla’s five cereal grains, fruits 
and vegetables, birds and animals, and other produces are more or less the 
same as those in China.” Other Tang texts reiterate Li’s description verba- 
tim.^ ^ However, like other ancient writers, Li and others fail to specify what 

Li, Beishi - “Xinluo” (Silla), HDWZK, 3123; and Wei, Suishu - “Dongyi-Xinluo” 

(Eastern barbarians - Silla), HDWZK, 1821. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

the five grains were. Since Li mentions that Koreans grew crops in both wet 
and dry fields, rice might be one of them. But like in North China, rice seems 
not to be the leading grain, for it only appears twice in Kim Pu-sik’s 
Historical Records of the Three Kingdoms, while millet appears nineteen 
times and wheat eleven times. Interestingly, while mentioning wheat a 
number of times, Kim Pu-sik often describes it in contexts such as how the 
crop was damaged by drought or frost. In a nutshell, millet had to be the 
grain crop more favored by Koreans, as it was resistant to both drought 
and flood. 

About the same time that Kim Pu-sik’s Historical Records of the Three 
Kingdoms was written, Xu Jing (1091-1163), a Chinese envoy sent by 
Emperor Huizong of the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127), visited 
Korea in 1123 and wrote a comprehensive travelogue - An Illustrated 
Record of the Chinese Embassy to the Goryeo Court during the Xuanhe 
Era (Xuanhe fengshi Gaoli tujing). It offers a comprehensive description of 
the Korean Peninsula. Besides wheat, barley and rice, Xu notes that several 
varieties of millet were grown in Korea. He also points out that the price of 
wheat was quite high because it was planted only in certain regions. With 
respect to rice, Xu observes that only the geng (sinicaljaponica) rice variety 
was planted in Korea, not the xian (indica) or the nuo (sticky/sweet) 
varieties. In other words, like wheat, rice was rare, hardly a grain staple 
for Koreans at the time. When Xu notices that Koreans only grew sinica/ 
japonica rice, he is possibly making a comparison with the situation in 
China, for this was in the age when indica rice, especially the Champa 
variety, began to be introduced into South China. This introduction made 
rice more available to the Chinese (a topic to be treated in the next 
chapter). All in all, Xu Jing’s account demonstrates that before the twelfth 
century, the foodway in the Korean Peninsula was comparable to those of 
North China before and during the Tang period. 

Like the earlier texts, Xu Jing’s account fails to mention whether or not 
Koreans by that time used spoon and/or chopsticks for meals. But he gives 
detailed information on other utensils in Korean life, such as the bowls, 
plates, basins, bottles, jars and other kitchen objects that were made of 

Kim Pu-sik, Samguk sagi, annotated by Sun Wenfan (Changchun: Jilin wenshi chubanshe, 
2003). About how wheat was damaged by the inclement weather, see 41, 133, 212, 282, 
289 and 312. 

Xu Jing, Xuanhe fengshi Gaoli tujing (Illustrated record of the Chinese embassy to the 
Goryeo court during the Xuanhe era), in Shi Chaoxian lu (Records of Chinese embassies to 
Korea), eds. Yin Mengxia 6c Yu Hao (Beijing: Beijing tushuguan chubanshe, 2003 ), vol. i, 
180, 186 and 262. 

Forming a chopsticks cultural sphere 


brass, ceramic and wood (often painted with lacquer). Xu is particularly 
impressed by the quality of metalcraft in Korea and the way Koreans 
plated the metal objects with gold or silver, as the latter were more pre- 
cious. He also praises the color and texture of the celadon-ware produced 
in Korea at that time.^*’ Since Xu Jing does not mention that Koreans used 
dining tools, one easy conclusion might be that these had not been adopted 
in Korean society. But from another perspective, one might say that 
Koreans already did because Xu was quite watchful and observant on 
his trip. Had Koreans not already used spoons and chopsticks, he would 
most likely have pointed it out in his account. 

In the late Goryeo Period, rice seems to have increased its appeal, 
though slowly. In the History of the Goryeo Dynasty (Goryeosa), a 
multi-volume work compiled during the mid-fifteenth century, rice is 
mentioned more frequently than in earlier texts; it had also become a 
reserve grain stored in government granaries for famine relief. Moreover, 
the royal court rewarded loyal and model officials with rice. These 
instances show that rice had become more available, if also rare and 
valuable. But the text also mentions millet the most, far more frequently 
than all other cereals in popularity. This indicates that for most Koreans, 
millet remained their staple starchy food. As such, perhaps, it was under- 
standable for them to continue the dining custom of Tang China and use 
both a spoon and chopsticks together in eating a meal. Both were present 
in the excavations from the Goryeo dynasty and the following Joseon 
dynasty (139Z-1897). Already discussed in Chapter 2, millet is best 
cooked into gruel and porridge, making the spoon a better eating tool 
than chopsticks. 

When in Korea, Xu Jing was quite struck by the high quality of metal- 
work. Did the advanced technology in metallurgy that he saw help account 
for the phenomenon that, in contrast to Japan, to date the overwhelming 
majority of the utensils that have been unearthed from early Korea are 
made of metal instead of wood? It is certainly a possibility because without 
question, whether made of silver or brass, metal utensils are much more 
durable, and thus preferred by many users. Of course, for ordinary 
Koreans, it is hard to imagine that they could all afford the metal variety, 
let alone those made of silver. But even the less wealthy families might still 
desire metal utensils for their durability, such as those fashioned from brass 
and cupronickel. Perhaps a more important reason is that the Korean 
Peninsula, and especially the northern part, is rich with gold, iron and 

Ibid., 191, 275. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

copper, making it relatively easy for Koreans to make everyday utensils 
from metal. By contrast, bamboo is not as common in the Peninsula as in 
China and Vietnam. One could even add that Koreans’ fondness for metal, 
especially gold, is shown in their family names - as of today, about twenty- 
five percent of Koreans are named Kim, which means “gold.” And in East 
Asian culture, gold often stands for all metals. Last but not least, one might 
consider Tang China’s lasting influence. Although the dynasty fell in early 
tenth-century China as an important power in East Asia, Tang culture and 
customs retained an exemplary and enduring influence in China and its 
neighboring regions for many centuries. Koreans’ preference for metal 
utensils might be an example of this influence, since metal chopsticks and 
spoons also constitute the majority of the food utensils excavated from the 
Tang period. 

During the late Goryeo Period, the rise of the Mongols and their sub- 
sequent invasion of the Korean Peninsula occasioned a significant change 
in Korean food and culinary culture. For the Mongols, it was by no means 
easy to conquer Korea. Having battled Koreans for several decades, they 
eventually prevailed in the 1270s and turned Korea into a province in the 
massive Mongolian empire. The coming of the Mongols meant that unlike 
in the previous periods, when meat had been absent from the Korean 
cuisine due to Buddhist influences, meat now returned to the Korean diet 
and, over time, became quite a fixture in Korean cookery, at least for 
those who could afford it. The Mongolian culinary practices, such as 
barbecuing and boiling (blanching) thinly sliced meat in a hot pot, 
were also introduced to Koreans. Chinese travel accounts, again, offer 
interesting and valuable information about how Koreans resumed meat 
consumption from the thirteenth century onward. In his Illustrated Record 
of the Chinese Embassy to the Goryeo Court during the Xuanhe Era, 
Xu Jing observed that per Buddhist teaching, Koreans seldom ate lamb, 
pork or other animal meat in the twelfth century.^*^ But when Dong Yue 
(1430-1502), an envoy from Ming China to Korea in 1488, wrote his 
Miscellaneous Records of Korea (Chaoxian zalu), he describes instead how 
Koreans consumed beef, lamb, pork and goose, and that of the four, lamb 

Yi S6ng-u, “Chosen hanto no shoku no bunka” (Food culture on the Korean Peninsula), in 
Higashi Ajia no shoku no bunka (Food cultures in East Asia), eds. Ishige Naomichi et al. 
(Tokyo: Heibonsha, 1981), 129-153; and Kim Ch’on-ho (Jin Tianhao), “Han, Meng 
zhijian de roushi wenhua bijiao” (A comparative study of meat consumption cultures 
between the Koreans and the Mongols), trans. Zhao Rongguang & Jiang Chenghua, 
Shangye jingji yu guanli (Commercial economy and management), 4 (2000), 39-44. 

Xu, Xuanhe fengshi Gaoli tujing, 176, 188. 

Forming a chopsticks cultural sphere 


was most popular. Needless to say, this marked change in food interest 
registered the Mongolian influence in Korea. In other words, it was not 
coincidental that metal utensils had an enduring appeal among Koreans, 
which has lasted to this day. As perhaps in Tang China, where metal utensils 
also seemed prevalent, the requirements associated with consuming meat- 
based dishes had turned people to more durable and strong eating tools. And 
in both cases, there were identifiable nomadic culinary and cultural influen- 
ces, including the increased consumption of lamb and mutton and other 
animal meats in general. 

Traditionally, metal utensils have been most favored among the Asian 
nomads, including the Mongols, Tibetans and Manchus and their ances- 
tors (e.g. Xiongnu). In contrast to their agronomic neighbors (the Chinese, 
Japanese, Vietnamese as well as Koreans) who used knives and forks 
mostly for cooking rather than for eating, these nomads had adopted 
knives and forks, especially the former, as eating implements over many 
centuries. The knife was more essential because once meat was cut into 
smaller portions, one could eat them by hand. This habit of using hands to 
convey food, or shoushi (feeding with fingers), became a standard 
expression for the Chinese to describe their neighbors’ dining habit; the 
term appeared in a number of Chinese texts from the third century 
onward, especially during and after the Tang dynasty when the Chinese 
made more contact with other ethnic groups. 

But coming into contact with the Chinese, some nomads also learned to 
make and use chopsticks and spoons to cook and convey food. The begin- 
ning of the chapter mentioned that the Chinese influence moved into 
Vietnam because of the Qin conquest of the land during the third century 
BCE. Around the same time that he sent Zhao Tuo to the south, Qinshihuang, 
the Qin ruler, also commanded Meng Tian (?-2io bce), another of his 
generals, to lead an army of 300,000 to fight against the Xiongnu, a powerful 
nomadic group in control of the northern steppe regions. After the campaign 
was over, Meng’s soldiers were deployed in the Ordos Desert, encircled by 
the Great Bend of the Yellow River, and became a garrison force on the 

Dong Yue, Chaoxian zalu, in Shi Chaoxian lu, voL 3, 807-808. 

An early mention of the Central and South Asians who used hands to transport foods was 
entered by Xuanzang in his DaTang xiyuji (Great Tang records of western regions), juan 2, 
ZJGK, 19. Also, JiuTangshu - “Xirong liezhuan” (Biographies of western barbarians), 
ZJGK, 2657; XinTangshu - “Xiyu” (Western regions), ZJGK, 2057; and “Nanman” 
(Southern barbarians), ZJGK, 2101. A similar custom was found in Zhuawa, or today’s 
Indonesia, by Fang Hui (1227-1307) in his Tongjiang xuji (Sequel to the Tongjiang 
collections), 26, ZJGK, 301. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

border. In addition, Qinshihuang sent a number of forced laborers there to 
construct a defensive wall in the region, which became an early part of the 
Great Wall known in modern times. After the Qin’s fall, Han rulers con- 
tinued the effort to push the Xiongnu back into the steppe and had inter- 
mittent success. Beneath the veneer of military conflict, however, cultural 
exchanges also took place. A recent archaeological excavation has uncovered 
that the Xiongnu, like the Chinese in the Han, used zeng to steam grain food. 
The Xiongnu also made and used bone chopsticks in transporting food."^^ 
This might be an isolated example; but it nevertheless shows that cultural 
exchanges were hardly unidirectional. As Central Asian influences entered 
Han China through contact with the nomads, Chinese culinary practices and 
dining customs also extended into regions beyond China proper. 

After the fall of the Tang, chaos erupted in China for several decades. 
In its wake, Zhao Kuangyin (9Z7-976), a military man, rose to power 
and founded the Northern Song dynasty in China proper. But the Song 
territory was considerably smaller than the Tang’s because it had no 
control of the pastureland, mountain ranges and desert areas in the 
north and northwest. That is, the Song shared their control of the Asian 
mainland with other ethnic groups, such as the Kitans, the Jurchens and 
the Mongols. Song historians often commented on the social behavior 
and cultural customs of these nomadic groups. The Collection of 
Documents of the Song Diplomatic Relations with the Northern 
Regimes (Sanchao beimeng huibian), a historical text by Xu Mengxin 
(11Z6-1207), points out that the inhabitants in Manchuria were finger 
feeders - no utensils were employed by them to transport food.'*^ This 
observation is supported by archaeology. In the 1970s Chinese archae- 
ologists discovered a Kitan tomb - the Kitans had founded the Liao 
dynasty (907-1 1Z5) centered in Manchuria. Of the kitchen items that 
surfaced there were pitchers, jars, pots, basins, bowls and knives, but no 
chopsticks. One of the wall paintings in the tomb depicted a man (chef?) 
using a knife to cut a leg of an animal, suggesting that once the meat was 
cut, it would be placed on a plate - plates were found in larger quantities 
than bowls in Kitan and Mongol tombs of the period - for people to 
transfer it to their mouths with their hands. 

¥le^Tianshan jiayan, 14^-146. Sanchao beimeng huibian Juan 

Xiang Chunsong, “Liaoning Zhaowuda diqu faxian de Liaomu huihua ziliao” {Paintings 
discovered in a Kitan tomb of the Zhaowuda area, Liaoning), Wenwu (Cultural relics), 6 
(19751), 2.2-32. 

Forming a chopsticks cultural sphere 


But archaeological evidence reveals that over time, Asian nomads began 
using chopsticks to convey grains, meat and vegetables. Compared with 
the Mongols and the Jurchens, the Kitans were more receptive to Han 
Chinese influences. Archaeological digs of a Kitan tomb in today’s Inner 
Mongolia yielded several household items made of brass, silver and 
porcelain, including pots, jars, vases, bowls, plates, cups and mirrors. 
A pair of brass chopsticks was found among them. They were 23 cm long 
with lightly carved lines decorating their top.'^"^ And this was not an 
isolated case, nor did the Kitans use only metal chopsticks. Many lac- 
quered wooden chopsticks have surfaced in Kitan tombs of the twelfth 
century or later throughout North and Northeast China. Bone, brass 
and wooden chopsticks have been found in Jurchen tombs too, showing 
that chopsticks gradually became accepted among the Jurchens. At a 
later time, the Mongols turned to chopsticks use too. Excavations in 
Chifeng, Inner Mongolia, seem quite telling. From the 1970s to the late 
1980s, mural paintings were uncovered in two tombs that belonged to 
either a Kitan or a Mongol noble (the area was first controlled by the 
Kitans and later by the Mongols). One painting portrays an eating scene: 
on a short-legged rectangle table metal bowls, plates, spoons and chop- 
sticks are placed. The mural painting found in another Chifeng tomb 
offers better evidence that chopsticks were used in handling food. It 
depicts an eating scene with a maid serving her master; she holds a big 
bowl in her left hand and a pair of chopsticks in her right hand, as 
though preparing to stir the food in the bowl with the chopsticks for 
serving the master."*^ The latter tomb dates back to the fourteenth 
century, hence it was more likely a Mongol tomb. The excavations 
prove that after their conquest of China in the late thirteenth century, 
the Mongols gradually adopted the dining custom of chopsticks use. 
The court protocol of the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), founded by the 
Mongols in China, offers corroborating evidence; it specifies that a proper 
court burial should contain one set of eating utensils - including bowls. 

Xiang Chunsong, “Neimenggu jiefangyingzi Liao mu fajue jianbao” (Concise report on 
the dig of the Liao-dynasty tomb in Jiefangyingzi, Inner Mongolia), Kaogu (Archaeology), 

4 (1979), 330-334- 

Liu, Zhongguo zhu wenhuashi, 280-285. 

Xiang Chunsong & Wang Jianguo, “Neimeng Zhaomeng Chifeng Sanyanjing Yuandai 
bihuamu” (Wall paintings in the Yuan tomb in Sanyanjing, Chifeng, Zhaomeng District, 
Inner Mongolia), Wenwu^ i (1982), 54-58. 

Liu Bing, “Neimenggu Chifeng Shazishan Yuandai bihuamu” (Wall paintings in the Yuan 
tomb in Shazishan, Chifeng, Inner Mongolia), Wenwu, 2 (1992), 24-27. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

plates and chopsticks - for the deceased, demonstrating that the Mongols 
considered chopsticks an essential eating utensil. 

In sum, multiple sources have shown that by the fourteenth century the 
chopsticks cultural sphere had not only become well established in today’s 
China, Vietnam, Korean and Japan but also penetrated successfully into 
the areas of the Mongolian steppe, Manchuria and into the Gobi and 
Taklamakan Deserts in North and Northwest China. This expansion, 
however, did not cause the Mongols, the Kitans and the other inhabitants 
of those regions to completely forsake their more traditional utensils, such 
as knives and forks. Instead, they tended to combine them with chopsticks 
and used them together, though the combination could vary - chopsticks 
could be grouped together with a spoon and a knife, a knife and a fork, or a 
spoon and a fork.'*^ The utensils used by the Manchu court are an example, 
consisting of a knife, a fork and a pair of chopsticks (Plate 9). A nomadic 
group from Manchuria, the Manchus, established the Qing dynasty 
(1644-1911) in the wake of the Ming dynasty’s fall. But despite their 
rule in China, Manchu royalty combined the use of chopsticks with knives 
and forks. 

Song Lian, Yuanshi (History of the Yuan dynasty) - “Guosu jiuli” (Old rituals of our 
country’s customs), HDWZK, 1925. 

More examples of how the Mongols, the Manchus and their (nomadic) neighbors on the 
Mongolian steppes use both knives and chopsticks are found in Lan, Kuaizi, buzhishi 
kuaizi, 129-135. 

PLATE I. Bone spoons unearthed at a Neolithic cultural site in Sichuan, China. 
(Courtesy of Ai Zhike, the Sanxia Museum, Chongqing, China) 

PLATE 2. Neolithic bone chopsticks found in Longqiuzhuang, a Neolithic cultural 
site in Jiansu, China. 

(Courtesy of the Yangzhou Museum, China) 

PLATE 3. Neolithic bone chopsticks (the two thin sticks in the lower part) in Longqiuzhuang. 
(Courtesy of the Yangzhou Museum, China) 

p LATE 4 . This brick carving shows how chopsticks were used in early China, c. first 
century ce. 

(Zhongguo huaxiangzhuan quanji [Complete collections of Chinese brick 
carvings], ed. Yu Weichao, Chengdu: Sichuan meishu chubanshe, 2006, p. 

PLATE 5 . Eating customs in early China - sitting on the floor with foods placed on 
short-legged tables, shown on a brick carving, first to third centuries ce. 
(Zhongguo lidai yishu: huihua bian [Chinese art in different dynasties: painting], 
Beijing: Renmin Meishu Chubanshe, 1994, part i, p. jz) 

PLATE 6. Brick painting from the Fresco Tombs of the Wei and Jin Dynasty 
showing chopsticks used as utensils for cooking in early China, c. third-fifth 
centuries ce. 

(Painting from the Fresco Tombs of the Wei and fin Dynasty located in the 
Northwestern Gobi desert 20 km from fiayuguan city. Mural paintings in 
fiayuguan, fiuquan tombs of the Wei and fin periods, ed. Zhang Baoxun 
[Lanzhou: Gansu renmin chubanshe, 2001], p. 261 

PLATE 7. A food tray with wooden bowls and a pair of bamboo chopsticks found 
in the Mawangdui Tombs, Han China, c. second century bce. 

(Changsha Mawangdui yihao hanmu [Mawangdui # i Han tomb in Changsha[ 
(Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1973), ii. p. iji.) 

PLATE 8. “Fire sticks” from Edo-period Japan - used to arrange charcoals and 
stoke flames - are another example of how chopsticks could be used other than as 
an eating utensil. 

(Courtesy of the Edo-Tokyo Museum, Japan) 

PLATE 9. The Manchus usually combined the use of chopsticks with knives and forks. 

(Manchurian implements, c. ijth-ipth centuries. Courtesy of Lan Xiang, a private collector of chopsticks in Shanghai) 

PLATE I o. Eating and drinking in a tent tavern portrayed in a fresco in Dunhuang, a famous Buddhist grotto of Tang China, eighth-ninth 

(Dunhuang shiku quanji [Complete collections of Dunhuang Grotto murals], ed. Dunhuang yanjiuyuan, Shanghai: Shanghai renmin 
chubanshe, 2001, vol. 25, p. 4j) 

^ A Picnic Outside 

PLATE II. “A Picnic Outside” - a mural painting of the Tang Dynasty showing that chopsticks were used to convey foods and that diners 
sat on benches instead of the floor, c. eighth century. 

{DaTang bihua [Mural paintings of the great Tang dynasty], eds. Tang Changdong & Li Guozhen, Xi’an: Shanxi liiyou chubanshe, 
1996, p- 127) 

PLATE 12. “Literary Gathering”, Zhao Ji (1082-1135). Handscroll, ink and colors 
on silk, 184.4 ^ 12.3.9 cm. 

(Courtesy of the National Palace Museum, Taipei) 

PLATE 13. “Han Xizai’s Night Banquet,” or “The Night Revels of Han Xizai” (detail), c. 970, by Gu Hongzhong, showing that the 
Chinese sat on chairs to eat individually rather than communally as in later periods. Handscroll, ink and color on silk, 28.7 cm high, 
335.5 cm wide. 

(Courtesy of the Palace Museum, Beijing) 

PLATE 14. A mural found in a tomb from Song China (960-1127) portraying a 
couple, or the Zhaos, eating together at a table on high chairs, suggesting 
communal eating had begun in the family after the tenth century in China. 
(Zhongguo mush bihua quanji: Song, Liao, Jin, Yuan [Complete collections of 
Chinese tomb murals: Song, Liao, Jin and Yuan dynasties], Shijiazhuang: Hebei 
Jiaoyu chubanshe, 2011, p. 86) 

PLATE 15. A family eating together at one sitting during the Jurchen period 
(c. thirteenth century), suggesting the spread of a communal eating style in Asia. 
(Zhongguo mush bihua quanji: Song, Liao, Jin, Yuan [Complete collections of 
Chinese tomb murals: Song, Liao, Jin and Yuan dynasties], Shijiazhuang: Hebei 
Jiaoyu chubanshe, 2011, p. 114) 

PLATE i6. “Women 22” by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1862). The Japanese have been accustomed to chopsticks since approximately 
the seventh century, as shown in this Ukiyo-e painting, a popular genre in Edo Japan. 

("Women 22” by Utagawa Kuniyoshi [1797-1862], Public Domain) 

PLATE 17. “A Group of Trackers,” drawing by a European visitor to eighteenth- 
century China depicting how the Chinese ate with chopsticks. 

(Prom Views of Eighteenth Century China: Costumes, History, Customs, 
by William Alexander & George Henry Mason, © London, Studio editions, 
1988, p. 2.5; 

PLATE 1 8. Portrait of Li-Lieu Ying, Empress Tzu-Hsi’s Great Eunuch, late 
nineteenth century. 

(Chinese School, nineteenth century. Private Collection / Bridgeman Images) 

PLATE 19. “The Latest Craze of American Society, New Yorkers Dining in a 
Chinese Restaurant,” Leslie Hunter (fl. 1910), Illustration from The Graphic 
Magazine, 1911. 

(Private Collection / The Stapleton Collection / Bridgeman Images) 

PLATE zo. Pairs of chopsticks to be packed into bento boxes in Japan. 
(Author’s photograph) 

PLATE 21. Japanese “husband-wife chopsticks,” which are often painted with 
lacquer. The pair for the husband are slightly longer and less colourful than the pair 
for the wife. 

(Author’s photograph) 

PLATE 2 2.. Japanese festive chopsticks, shaped with two tapered ends and a round body, reflecting the belief in humans and deities 
sharing food together at one meal on holidays and at festivals. 

(Author’s photograph) 

PLATE 2 3 . Training chopsticks, a Japanese invention, ensure that a young child can easily put the tool on his/her fingers and pick up food. 
(Author’s photograph) 

PLATE 24. Using Japanese chopsticks to eat soba noodles and duck meat. 
(© TOHRU MINOWA/a.collectionRF/ amana images inc. I Alamy) 

PLATE 2 5 . The fact that rice can be transported in clumps using chopsticks has led 
to chopsticks becoming the main utensil used in Asia. 

(© Keller & Keller Photography ! Bon Appetit / Alamy) 

PLATE z6. Chinese chopsticks, chopstick rests, porcelain spoons and bowls at a 
market stall, Stanley Market, Stanley, Hong Kong, China. 

(© Steve Vidler/ SuperStock / Alamy) 

PLATE 27. Decorative chopsticks sold in Japanese stores, which are more of a gift 
than an eating implement. 

(Author’s photograph) 

PLATE 28. Eating Chinese takeout with disposable chopsticks. 
(© Kablonk RM/ Golden Pixels LLC / Alamy) 

PLATE 29. Couples dressed according to Han dynasty customs eating together in a group wedding ceremony in Xi’an, China, 
f© Corbis) 


Using chopsticks: customs, manners 
and etiquette 

Another function of the two chopsticks together, that of pinching the 
fragment of food; to pinch, moreover, is too strong a word, too aggressive; 
for the foodstuff never undergoes a pressure greater than is precisely 
necessary to raise and carry it; in the gesture of chopsticks, further softened 
by their substance - wood or lacquer - there is something maternal, the 
same precisely measured care taken in moving a child: a force no longer a 
pulsion; here we have a whole demeanor with regard to food . . . the instru- 
ment never pierces, cuts, or slits, never wounds but only selects, turns, 

Roland Barthes, Empire of Signs, i6. 
Der Mensch ist was es isst (a man is what he eats). 

German proverb 

In ancient times, people used both spoons and chopsticks to eat food, as 
recorded in histories and biographies. Korea also followed this custom. 
However, when the Central Plain [China] was in chaos, hundreds and 
thousands of military officers left and went east [to Korea]. When eating 
food, regardless of how it was cooked, they only used chopsticks, never a 
spoon. I don’t know when this way of eating began. It is said that Ming 
Emperor Taizu [Zhu Yuanzhang] once vowed that before he defeated Chen 
Youliang, he would not dare to use a spoon to eat and drink. He wanted to 
demonstrate his resolve. From then on, eating without a spoon gradually 
became adopted as a custom. However, I do not know whether this story is 

Yun Kuk-Hyong (1543-1611), a Korean envoy to the Ming dynasty 
(1368-1644), makes this observation in his Random Records of 1604 
(Capchin Mallok), a journal chronicling his trip to China in the early 



Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

seventeenth century/ By the time Yun went to China, it had become an 
established practice for the Joseon dynasty (1392-1897) in Korea to send 
cultural and diplomatic missions, biannually or annually, to Ming China 
and pay tributes to the Chinese dynasty, for the Korean rulers shared the 
belief with the Chinese that Confucianism was an ideal guide in govern- 
ment. Schooled in Confucian learning when young, those Korean envoys 
left a number of travelogues, offering valuable information on various 
aspects of Ming culture and society - its food culture and dining habits 
included. Yun Kuk-Hyong’s account is one of them. When he landed in 
China, where Confucianism originated, Yun was surprised to see that the 
Chinese did not follow the dining etiquette recommended by such 
Confucian texts as the Classic of Rites, in which he himself was possibly 
quite versed. He was taken aback that the Chinese he met only used 
chopsticks, but not together with a spoon to eat. Yun did not quite under- 
stand this (new) dining method, nor did he accept credulously the Chinese 
explanation for his query. 

Using chopsticks to transport both grain and nongrain foods, however, 
was nothing new in seventeenth-century China. More than a century ear- 
lier, Ch’oe Pu (1454-1504), a Korean Confucian scholar, had already 
observed in his journal that chopsticks had become the only tool for 
the Chinese to consume meals. After arriving in South China in the 
sixteenth century, European travellers and missionaries made the same 
observation.^ As speculated previously, since rice has long been the staple 
in South China and rice can be moved in globs like sliced meat and 
vegetables, the southern Chinese possibly had used, perhaps for the sake 
of convenience and economy, only chopsticks for meals from antiquity. 
But in their trips, Ch’oe Pu and Yun Kuk-Hyong went to North China. 
When did the northern Chinese experiment with this dining method, 
shedding the spoon in consuming their daily meals? In other words, 
when did chopsticks become the exclusive eating tool for the Chinese 
throughout China, as seen today? This becomes an intriguing question 
because, as stated in Chapter 3, until the Tang dynasty, despite the 
expanded chopsticks use in Chinese society, the spoon had remained 

^ Yun Kuk-Hyong, Capchin Mallok, available at 

^ Ch’oe Pu, Ch'oe Pu’s Diary: A Record of Drifting across the Sea, trans. John Meskill 
(Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1965), 93, 135-136, 144, 147, 157. The European 
observations were in the writings of Galeote Pereira, Caspar da Cruz and Martin De Rada 
in South China in the Sixteenth Century, ed. C. R. Boxer (London: Hakluyt Society, 1953), 
14, 141, 2.87. 

Using chopsticks: customs, manners and etiquette 


the primary implement for carrying fan (cooked grain) for the Chinese. 
Instances where spoons and chopsticks were used in unison are duly 
recorded in Tang literature, since the term bizhu or chizhu (spoon and 
chopsticks) always appears. What happened in the periods after the Tang’s 
fall in the tenth century, causing this conversion to occur throughout 

Actually, not only did something happen but it was also recorded in 
writing. The demise of the Tang had given rise to several regimes vying for 
control of China for several decades, until the victory of the Northern Song 
dynasty in 960. But the Song dynasty was ineffective in defending its 
northern borders. In 1127, the dynasty suffered a huge defeat in confront- 
ing the Jurchen, a nomadic power from Manchuria, and subsequently 
lost Kaifeng, its capital. In his memoir, Meng Yuanlao (c. 1090-1150), a 
Kaifeng native who retreated to the south, reminisces about the prosperous 
life the city had had, with many detailed descriptions. He mentions that 
while eating out in inns and restaurants, the diners “all used chopsticks 
today, instead of spoons as in older days.” As Kaifeng is located in North 
China, Meng’s statement suggests that chopsticks had become the only 
eating tool among the northern Chinese, if only for eating outside home, as 
early as the twelfth century.^ This was a stark contrast to dietary practices 
during the Tang. The Old Tang History (JiuTang shu), compiled a few 
decades after the Tang in the mid-tenth century, records that Gao 
Chongwen, a Tang general known for his strictness in disciplining his 
army, gave the specific order that his soldiers must use both spoons and 
chopsticks at local lodges. Gao would punish, according to the record, 
anyone who disobeyed the order by a death penalty."^ 

Since people’s choice of utensil often results from the type of food 
they eat, we need to see if, after the Tang, the northern Chinese discarded 
the spoon and only used chopsticks because they ate different foods. 
Meng Yuanlao recalled that in the city of Kaifeng everyone eating at 
a restaurant had all switched to chopsticks as their eating tool; however, 
he did not specify what types of food were served at those eateries. 
But it seems that at least they were not eating millet, for Lu You 
(1126-1200), a contemporary poet and a petty official in South China, 
professed that when he ate the grain, he used a spoon. In one of his poems. 

^ Meng Yuanlao et al., Dongjing menghualu, Ducheng jisheng, Xihu laoren fanshenglu, 
Mengliang lu, Wulin jiushi (Beijing: Zhongguo shangye chubanshe, 1982), 29. 

^ Liu X.U, JiuTangshu (Old Tang history) - “Gao Chongwen zi Chengjian” (Biographies of 
Gao Chongwen and his son Gao Chengjian), HDWZK, 4052. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

Lu describes vividly how he slid his spoon smoothly into cooked millet and 
scooped it up. Born and raised in Shaoxing, a city in the Yangzi River 
Delta, Lu You had to be more accustomed to eating rice than millet. Yet on 
occasions when millet was the grain food, Lu turned to the spoon, follow- 
ing the traditional etiquette recommended by ancient sages. This shows 
that even in the late twelfth century, cooked millet was likely eaten with a 
spoon among the Chinese literati.^ 

Perhaps due to their own consumption of rice, Japanese scholars have 
all agreed that the Chinese turned more to chopsticks use in the post-Tang 
periods because they ate more rice. Back in the 1950s, Aoki Masaru 
(1887-1964), a sinologist, had already argued that the primary reason 
for the northern Chinese to discard the spoon and only employ chopsticks 
for meals was that rice had spread to North China. In particular, Aoki 
pointed out, it was the variety of sinica/japonica rice, which he called the 
nenshitsumai (lit. glutinous rice), that grew across China. In other words, 
as the rice variety is viscous (not to be confused with the sticky rice used 
for making holiday food), the sinica/japonica rice is more integrated after 
cooking, enabling one to move it easily in clumps with chopsticks. Citing 
Aoki in their work, Mukai and Hashimoto have supported Aoki’s argu- 
ment with new evidence that the above conversion occurred around 
the fifteenth century. Shu Tassei, another Japanese scholar, also states 
that in North China, the custom for the Chinese to turn to chopsticks as 
their exclusive eating tool began in the Ming period, or after the four- 
teenth century.'’ It is possible that Japanese scholars have drawn on their 
own dining experience in Japan, for sinica/japonica rice is the most 
consumed rice variety among the Japanese. It has also been a long- 
practiced dietary custom for the Japanese to use chopsticks exclusively 
for their daily meals. However, if rice consumption did encourage exclu- 
sive chopsticks use, the rice did not have to be the sinica/japonica variety. 
Like the Japanese, the Vietnamese also mostly use chopsticks as their only 
eating tool for daily meals. But in Southeast Asia, due to geographical and 
climatic similarity, the indica rice is quite common, especially in Thailand 
but in Vietnam too. But regardless of the variety, the Vietnamese can 
move cooked rice with only chopsticks. 

^ Lu You, Jiannan shigao (Complete collections of Lu You’s poems), juan 6o, ZJGK, 756. 
Another possibility is that since he was writing a poem, Lu might have just preferred an 
archaic usage, a common practice among Chinese poets. Millet, after all, might not have 
even been his daily staple in real life. 

^ Mukai 6c Hashimoto, Hashi, 41-44; Shu, Chugoku no Shokubunka, 125. 

Using chopsticks: customs, manners and etiquette 


Without question, rice gained a much more important status as a 
grain food in China after the Tang. During the Song period, observes 
E. N. Anderson, “rice became far more important, at last gaining its 
modern status as China’s chief grain.” Indeed, Anderson summarizes, 
“rice was the miracle crop of Sung (Song).”" The advantage of rice is 
that when climate permits, rice fields have a higher yield than that of 
other crops. “On the basis of mean grain yield,” states Te-tzu Chang 
when writing for The Cambridge World History of Food, “rice crops 
produce more food energy and protein supply per hectare than wheat and 
maize. Hence, rice can support more people per unit of land than the two 
other staples.”*^ Rice also has a number of varieties. The indica variety 
mentioned above, for example, generally takes less time to ripen than does 
the sinica/japonica variety. Since the sixth century, many varieties of indica 
rice had been grown extensively in Southeast Asia, of which the Champa 
rice, cultivated in today’s central and southern Vietnam, was especially well 
known for its early ripening quality. The Vietnamese called it “hasty rice” 
because it could be harvested two or three times a year in semi-tropical 
climate zones. ^ In 1012, by the decree of Emperor Zhenzong, the Song 
dynasty official introduced Champa rice to Chinese farmers in the south- 
eastern littoral regions. Known in Chinese as the xian rice, Champa rice (and 
its variations) became widely farmed in the Yangzi River and Pearl River 
regions, even though other varieties of indica rice had grown in the same 
regions since antiquity. In a word, from the Song dynasty as rice became 
more consumed in China than before, the Chinese turned to more rice 
varieties than only the sinicaljaponica type suggested by Aoki Masaru. 

In Song China, besides the increase in consumption of rice, chopsticks 
use expanded also because Chinese cookery entered a new phase of 
development. Indeed, argues Michael Ereeman, it was during the Song 
period that cooking in China became a cuisine, characterized by the 
adoption of new ingredients and new cooking techniques. In his account 
of city life in Kaifeng, Meng Yuanlao describes these new culinary develop- 
ments in detail. In fact, of all the businesses in the city recorded by Meng, 
over half of them were public eateries, including low-priced noodle shops, 
noisy teahouses, lively inns and famous restaurants, in addition to a 
number of food stands and vendors in the city’s boisterous night 

^ Liu, TangSong yinshi wenhuade bijiao yanjiu, 58. Anderson, Food of China,, 65. 
^ Chang, “Rice,” Cambridge World History of Food, voL i, 132. 

^ Nguyen, Ancient Civilization of Vietnam, 224. 

Freeman, “Sung,” Food in Chinese Culture, 143-151. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

markets. The foods offered at those places were cooked in a great variety of 
ways, ranging from various kinds of stews, prepared traditionally but with 
new ingredients, to new, innovative stir-fried dishes, displaying the marked 
improvement of this relatively new cooking technique. One could well 
imagine that to eat all these foods, plus noodles and dumplings, people 
naturally turned to chopsticks as the eating utensil, for it was economical 
and convenient; they were likely to be provided by the eateries. 

Apparently, Kaifeng was not the only city in Song China that had such 
an animated and exciting life. When the Song dynasty retreated to the 
south, it made Lin’an, or today’s Hangzhou, its capital. The city Lin’an, 
according to a contemporaneous account, quickly became a hub of a great 
variety of restaurants at which many schools of cuisines competed to 
attract customers. That is, the improvement and diversification of 
Chinese food culture continued and expanded, despite the regime change. 
Not only were southern crops like rice grown in parts of North China; 
expanding on the effort already begun in the Tang, northern crops such as 
wheat were also planted widely in the south, partly to meet the demand of 
the northern Chinese who migrated to the south following the Song 
regime. Their dining habits also influenced the southern residents: from 
then on, if not earlier, wheat flour foods (e.g. noodles and wonton) became 
daily staples for the people in the south, if mostly only for breakfast and 

After the Mongols established the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) in China, 
such mixing and mingling of culinary traditions persisted. A famous 
example is the introduction of “mutton hot pot” (shuanyangrou) into 
China proper. The dish had a Mongolian origin but also appealed to the 
Chinese, especially those in the north (a topic we will turn to below). The 
Yuan dynasty was overthrown by Zhu Yuanzhang (1328-1398), who 
founded the Ming dynasty in its ruins in 1368. In his early reign, Zhu 
migrated peasants from the south and northwest to the north, in hope of 
reviving the agricultural economy in those war-wrecked regions. He also 
issued policies to restore and maintain good irrigation systems, which 
benefited the growth of all grain crops in general, and rice in particular. 
These measures caused southern foods and cuisines to either spread or take 
deeper root in the north. After Zhu’s death, his son Zhu Di, or Emperor 
Yongle (1360-1424), made Beijing the new capital, which further 
strengthened the economic and cultural link between the north and the 

Dongjing menghualu. 

Ibid., especially Menglianglu and Xihu laoren fanshenglu. 

Using chopsticks: customs, manners and etiquette 


south. Toward the late Ming, as the government was staffed more and 
more by officials from Jiangnan (lit. south of Yangzi, or Yangzi Valley), it 
designed policies to cultivate rice in the suburbs of Beijing and other 
regions in North China, in addition to transporting it in large quantities 
from the south through the Grand Canal. When Song Yingxing (1587- 
1666) wrote his Exploitations of the Works of Nature (Tiangong kaiwu), 
he estimated that “Nowadays seventy per cent of the people’s staple food is 
rice, while wheat and various kinds of millet constitute thirty per cent.”^'* 
Concurring with Song, E. N. Anderson states that during the Ming, “rice 
became even more important, reaching its modern level of significance as 
China’s great staple. At the same time, wheat was spreading in the south, 
the flour was becoming an important food.”'^ European missionaries 
who went to South China during the Ming confirmed that while “the 
principal food of all Chinos [sic] is rice . . . there is also much and very 
good wheat, whereof they make very good bread. 

Ming China, spanning nearly three centuries, was a prosperous era; 
its prosperity is reflected in the many novels appearing in the age. These 
novels provide unequivocal evidence that the Ming Chinese only used 
chopsticks for their meals, as observed by Yun Kuk-Hyong at the begin- 
ning of the chapter. The novels by Eeng Menglong (1574-1646), a 
prolific writer of the time, recorded multiple and useful examples. Feng 
was interested in portraying the life of the common people, or the towns- 
people living in urban areas in coastal China. His Stories to Awaken the 
World (Xingshi hengyan), for instance, depicts an occasion at which Qin 
Chong, a candidate en route to the imperial examination, was received 
warmly by a local family. Qin was offered rice and wine, together with a 
pair of chopsticks and a wine cup - the only two utensils given to him. 
He used the chopsticks to eat the rice, which was described as “snow 
white,” and took a little sip of the wine in the cup. Another character in 
the novel, Wu Ya’nei, or Young Master Wu, was a big eater. On one 
occasion, as the story depicts, Wu was only given two bowls of rice. 
“Holding his chopsticks,” Feng writes, “he quickly shoveled them down. 

Yin Yongwen, MingQing yinshi yanjiu (Studies of food and drink in the Ming and Qing 
dynasties) (Taipei: Hongye wenhua shiye youxian gongsi, 1997), 5-6. 

Song Yingxing (Sung Ying-hsing), T’ien-kung k’ai-wu: Chinese Technology in the 
Seventeenth Century^ trans. E-tu Zen Sun and Shiou-chuan Sun (University Park: 
Pennsylvania State University Press, 1966), 4. 

Anderson, Food o/^C^m.3, 80. 

See the writings of Martin de Rada and Caspar da Cruz in Boxer, South China in the 
Sixteenth Century^ 2.87, 13 1. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

with only two or three scoops,” still appearing quite unsatisfied/^ A 
native of Suzhou, a major city in Jiangnan where rice was the grain staple, 
Feng proved that it had been customary for the people to transfer rice 
from bowls to their mouths with a pair of chopsticks. 

Ming novels also show that rice was consumed quite commonly in 
North China. The Plum in the Golden Vase (Jinpingmei), a well-known 
erotic novel written anonymously in the late sixteenth century, is a prime 
example. The story depicted in the novel was supposed to have taken 
place in Shandong, North China. The novel hence illustrated how food 
habits and dietary customs had changed among the northern Chinese in 
the period. The protagonists of The Plum in the Golden Vase are a rich 
merchant named Ximen Qing and his concubines and lovers. Li Ping’er 
was one of Ximen’s concubines who, suffered an untimely death. Upon 
her departure, Ximen Qing went to Li Ping’er’s quarter. Saddened and 
sobbing, Li’s servants served Ximen with several dishes on the dining 
table. To console them, Ximen “raised his chopsticks from the table and 
said: ‘Please eat some rice,’ as though Li were still alive. But his consola- 
tion gesture only made them cry more.”^* Clearly, not only did the 
northern Chinese like Ximen Qing eat rice, they also used chopsticks to 
convey the grain. 

As rice was grown and consumed in North China, a new term, damifan 
(lit. big rice), appeared in Ming texts. As a result, cooked millet became 
called xiaomifati (lit. small rice); both are still in popular parlance among 
the northern Chinese today because they still consume them as daily 
grains. These neologisms appeared because in terms of grain size, rice is 
undoubtedly larger than millet, even its huangliang variety. The Plum in 
the Golden Vase frequently mentions how people cooked rice fan, and 
quotes such aphorisms as “[whoever] put in the rice (mi - uncooked rice) 
first, would eat the fan first too.”^^ Yet interestingly, the fan described 
in the novel was often called tang fan, literarily meaning “rice in hot water 
or soup.” This term reveals that in cooking rice, the northern Chinese 
perhaps still liked to make it a gruel or porridge, just as they would if it 
were millet. Besides rice, the people in The Plum in the Golden Vase also 
ate other grains. To cultivate his love affairs, Ximen Qing threw many 
parties, at which a variety of foods was served. Among those made of grain 

Feng Menglong, Xingshi hengyan, juan 3 and juan 28, ZJGK, 35, 414. 

Xiaoxiaosheng, 13, ZJGK, 515. 

'^'^Xian xiami, xian chifan” which appears four times in Jinpingmei in juan 4, juan i^,juan 
18, ZJGK, 135, 664, 725, 729. 

Using chopsticks: customs, manners and etiquette 


cereals were buns, pancakes, noodles and rice, demonstrating a more 
diverse food system than that in Jiangnan. But regardless of the variety 
and whether the food appeared solid or soft, Ximen and his friends only 
used chopsticks, in addition to a cup for drinking either wine or tea, 
without the presence of a spoon. In fact, the eating scenes described in 
the novel suggest that by this time this combination (a pair of chopsticks 
and a tea/wine cup) of eating tools had replaced the earlier spoon and 
chopsticks combination. “ Caspar da Cruz, a Jesuit missionary who 
visited the Ming, also wrote that a “small porcelain cup” was provided 
for the diners to hold wine, without mentioning the spoon. 

By using chopsticks to eat, again shown in these Ming novels, people sat 
around a dining table and placed cooked dishes on it for everyone to share. 
In his journal, Ch’oe Pu, the Korean mandarin, also recalls that when he 
crisscrossed China, he saw the Chinese use only chopsticks to eat foods at a 
common table. The Europeans who went to China in the period made a 
similar observation: 

The Chinas [Chinese] are great eaters and they use many dishes. They eat at one 
table fish and flesh, and the base people dress it sometimes all together. The dishes 
which are to be eaten at one table, are set all together on the board [table?], that 
every one may eat which he liketh best.^^ 

This has become a typical eating scene in China and beyond in the chop- 
sticks cultural sphere. But it marked a contrast to the dietary custom of 
the earlier periods, such as that of Han and Tang China. For Han stone 
carvings and mural paintings show that the Chinese dined on the floor, 
not on a chair nor at a table, and the food was either placed on a mat or 
on a short-legged tray (the tray was called shi’an, appearing first in a Han 
text) (Plate 5).^“* In modern Chinese, “banquet” is still referred to as 
yanxi, or “dining on the mat,” indicating the residual influence of 
the ancient custom. This dietary tradition seems to have continued 
more or less through the Tang. Meanwhile, some Tang paintings show 
that people had begun to sit on a bench and eat food on a table. But it 
seems that they still had food served to them in their individual bowls and 
plates (Plate ii). 

See JinpingmeiJuan 12, ZJGK, 443. Therewere more eating occasions described through- 
out the novel where wine cups and chopsticks were provided instead of spoons. 

Boxer, South China in the Sixteenth Century^ 142. Ch’oe Pu’s Diary, 157. 
da Cruz, Boxer, South China in the Sixteenth Century, 14 1. 

Huan Kuan, Yantie lun (Debates on salt and iron), juan 5, ZJGK, 31. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

However, during the post-Tang periods, together with the ascent of 
chopsticks as an eating tool, a new dining habit emerged in China; 
diners began sitting on chairs around a table, on which food dishes 
were placed for everyone to sample. Chinese food scholars call this 
new dining style heshizhi (communal eating style), as opposed to the 
fenshizhi (individual eating style) of the earlier periods (Plate 12). Had 
the emergence of the communal eating style also encouraged the Chinese 
to turn to increased chopsticks use rather than to the spoon? Liu Yun 
believes it did, and cites the evidence that the chopsticks from the Ming 
period tended to be a bit longer - averaging over 25 cm - than their 
earlier counterparts. The increased length, observes Liu, was for diners 
to pinch and pick up the food contents at the middle of the table. (It is 
worth mentioning here that in Chongqing, where hot pot is the local 
delicacy, restaurants that serve hot pot provide their customers with 
longer chopsticks, in order to facilitate the food sharing.) By compar- 
ison, as communal eating is uncommon in Japan, Japanese chopsticks 
are shorter (18-20 cm), a point that lends support to Liu’s observation. 
The Japanese prefer eating in the so-called meimeizen (lit. one meal per 
person) style, with food items pre-served to their individual plates and 

It was practical for the Japanese, as well as the early Chinese, to eat their 
meals individually, rather than communally, because they dined on the 
floor (e.g. sitting on the tatami as the Japanese customarily did). It made 
sense for food to be served to them - it would be too awkward and 
cumbersome for anyone to crawl on the floor to get the food for them- 
selves. The development of the communal eating style, therefore, was 
predicated on the use of chairs and tables, especially the former. Chairs 
were not found in ancient China; they were introduced to China by the 
nomads, or the huren, in the Han dynasty. When Emperor Ling of the Han 
demanded that everything be hu, huchuang, or '"hu seat,” was included. 
The seat was possibly made of animal skins and supported by wooden legs. 
It was light and foldable, resembling an outdoor chair today. It might 
have evolved from the saddle used by the nomads in horse riding. In the 
post-Han period, according to a fourth-century text, the hu seat came to 
be adopted by the Chinese, especially among the rich.^® As it became 
more accepted, huchuang changed to jiaochuang, dropping the hu prefix; 
jiaochuang instead described how the sitter crossed their legs in the seat. The 

Liu, Zhongguo zhu wenhuashi, 327. 

Gan Bao, Soushenji (In search of the supernatural), juan 7, ZJGK, 30. 

Using chopsticks: customs, manners and etiquette 


word chuang, however, still suggests that it was less a chair than a bench, 
without the back. And benches are indeed shown in Tang paintings. 

Once the stool height was raised and a back attached, then the bench 
became a chair. The Chinese equivalent of the chair is yizi, which first 
appeared in the Tang.^^ The famous Night Revels of Han Xizai (Han Xizai 
yeyantu; Plate 13), a painting from the tenth century, not long after the 
Tang’s fall, offers a glimpse of what chairs were like in Tang and post-Tang 
China. The seat was high enough for a sitter to extend his legs straight 
down and, with a back, the sitter could also rest his body. That is, the 
chair had become like a chair one uses today. When Han Xizai (902-970), 
a respected scholar-official at the time who refused to serve in government, 
entertained his guests, as the painting depicts, he gave them several dishes 
on the rectangular table in front of them, which was not much higher than 
the chair on which he and his guests were sitting. It looked more like a 
coffee table in modern times. While chopsticks and wine cups were on the 
table, the painting shows that Han and his friends were eating together, but 
not eating communally as in the later periods. 

But communal eating did begin to take place, first among family mem- 
bers, in the following periods. A mural painting (Plate 14) found in a Song 
tomb in Hebei, near Beijing, shows a middle-aged couple sitting across 
from each other, with foods, chopsticks and wine cups on a table, appa- 
rently having a family dinner together. The square-shaped table in the 
painting is considerably higher than the one in the Night Revels of Han 
Xizaid'^ Food scholars in China believe that communal eating started as 
early as the Song period, or from the twelfth century onward, as a result of 
the marked culinary advances of the period. “Communal eating began to 
be widely adopted in Song society,” Zhao Rongguang states, “because 
food dishes on the table became multiplied and diversified. People 
desired to sample and share these dishes together at a meal, making 
communal dining a logical choice. The individual eating style became 
obsolete. That people in the Song had shared food together at one 
sitting is also described in novels, such as in the famous Water Margin 

Wu Jing, Zhen’guan zhengyao (Essentials about politics in the Zhen’guan reign), juan i6, 
ZJGK, 156. 

See^ f which cites a Tang record that used yizi. The next appear- 
ance of yizi is in Y uchi Wo’s Zhongchao gushi (Stories of the Tang dynasty), written in the 
tenth century, ZJGK, 6. 

Tomb mural of Mr. Zhao and his wife eating at a table, served by their daughter and 
servants, c. 1099. Tomb no. i, Yuxian, Henan Province. 

Zhao Rongguang, Zhongguo yinshi wenhua gailun, 219. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

(Shuihu zhuan). Song Jiang, the hero in the novel who organized a revolt 
against the Song dynasty in the twelfth century, is depicted often having 
meals and drinks with his friends while sitting together at a big table. But 
the novel was written in the fourteenth century, or in the early Ming; it thus 
might have projected the Ming dining style into the earlier Song period. 

The adoption of communal eating had to be a gradual process in 
Chinese society. But apparently by the Ming it had become rather com- 
mon. As the Ming exercised some control in Vietnam, it was likely that the 
Vietnamese also adopted communal dining during the period.^ ^ To facil- 
itate the need for sharing of dishes, the table size, too, became bigger from 
the Ming onward. The dining tables mentioned in such Ming novels as The 
Plum in the Golden Vase were of two types - kangzhuo, or “bed-stove 
table,” and baxianzhuo, or “eight-immortal table.” Both terms only began 
to appear in Ming texts, not earlier. (Square tables, or fangzhuo, had 
appeared in the Song, but they were not mainly used for dining.^^) The 
bed-stove table, as its name suggests, is a table for putting on a platform 
bed, also called a bed-stove. Built with bricks or fired clay, the bed-stove - 
kang in Chinese and nahan in Manchu - channels the heat of the cooking 
fire into the bedroom to keep it warm in the winter. Occupying usually two 
thirds of a room, the platform (approximately z x i.8 m) is not only for 
sleeping at night but also for other activities, such as dining, during the day. 
In other words, the bed-stove table, which is usually square-shaped but 
could also be rectangular, is placed at the center of the platform in the 
daytime for the family to eat their daily meals or entertain their guests; it is 
then moved to the side and leaned against the wall at night when the family 
goes to sleep. The platform bed and the table remain in use among the 
Chinese, Koreans and Manchus living in the north today. For several diners 
to eat at the bed-stove table, most of them have to sit around it and the rest 
on the benches next to the bed (Plate 15). This was exactly how Ximen Qing 
and his women did it, according to The Plum in the Golden Vased'^ 

In his TangSong yinshi wenhuade bijiao yanjiu^ Liu Pubing argues that communal eating 
began in Song China, though he cites Water Margin as evidence, which was a Ming novel. 

As quoted in Chapter 4, Nguyen describes his country’s eating customs as follows: “The 
dishes are common for all, one uses one’s chopsticks to take foodstuffs which are prepared 
and cut into small pieces.” Ancient Civilization of Vietnam^ 212. 

Chen Kui, NanSong guangelu (Records of Southern Song archives and history-offices), 
ZJGK, 27. 

Kangzhuo appears in Jinpingmei in juan 4, 135, juan 5, 181, juan 6, 223, juan 15, 604, 
juan 18, 717, and juan 18, 751; all pages are in ZJGK. 

Using chopsticks: customs, manners and etiquette 


In the Ming novel, Ximen Qing also used eight-immortal tables to 
entertain his guests, especially when he was hosting a big party. As its 
name indicates, the eight-immortal table is larger than the bed-stove table. 
Approximately r.z x r.z m, it is big enough for eight people to sit rather 
comfortably around it and have a meal together. And the table seems more 
common in South China, where the platform bed was absent, than it was in 
the north. Feng Menglong’s Stories to Awaken the World, for instance, 
never mentions the bed-stove table. When he describes how Qin Chong 
was welcomed with a meal, as cited above, Feng points out that the foods, 
fruits and confections were presented to Qin on an eight-immortal table for 
him to savor and enjoy. Indeed, whenever eating is described in the novel, 
the eight-immortal table is always used, suggesting its broad acceptance in 
South China. 

Wang Mingsheng (r72z-ry97), a scholar of the Qing dynasty (r644~ 
r 9 r r ), traced the evolution of dining tables in China, and the origin of the 
eight-immortal table in particular, as follows: 

The table used today had the same origin as huchuang [hu seat]. Ancient people 
sat on the floor, behind a mat. So they did not use a chair. If they used a table, or ji 
)L, it was rather small, as described in the Classic of History and the Classic of 
Odes. By contrast, the table we use today is quite big. In common parlance, it is 
called the table of eight immortals, for it could have eight people eating together at a 
sitting. Though similar in use, today’s table is quite different from the table of 
ancient times. 

Wang’s remarks showed that during his time, the eight-immortal table was 
the most common dining table. The table has actually retained its popular- 
ity more or less to this day in many parts of China. A major reason for its 
persistent attraction seems to be its big size, enabling more to sit around it 
and more food dishes to be presented. Beginning in the Ming but continu- 
ing through the Qing, the population in China experienced a steady 
growth, rising roughly from less than 100 million in the fifteenth century 
to over 300 million in the mid-eighteenth century. In ryrz when Emperor 
Kangxi (1654-2722) removed the poll tax, it undoubtedly helped to 
increase the family size, making the table almost indispensable for many 
enlarged households. But the increase had already begun in the Ming, 
partly because of the introduction of the “New World crops” (maize. 

Baxianzhuo appears six times in Jinpingmei. 

Feng, Xingshi hengyan^ juan 3, ZJGK, 35. 

Wang Mingsheng, Shiqishi shangque {Critiques of seventeen histories) (Shanghai: 
Shanghai shudian chubanshe, 2005), juan 24, 171-172. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

sweet potatoes, potatoes, etc.) from the Americas to China, which helped 
reduce mortality among the poor. As more cheap labor became available 
while the gap between the rich and poor remained, the rich Chinese 
pursued luxury, including haute cuisine and other “superfluous things.” 
The enlarged body of literature of connoisseurship of the period docu- 
mented the development of this “luxury culture.” The popularity of the 
eight-immortal table was material evidence, confirming the extent of such 
a culture in Chinese society. 

The adoption of tables and chairs, therefore, was correlated to the 
propagation of communal dining among the Chinese; the latter enabled 
diners to taste and try several dishes at one sitting. The flexibility of chop- 
sticks enhances such a process, especially if the dishes are stir-fried or 
stewed because the food items have been cut into small pieces. Yet people 
could also share several food contents in one dish. “Mutton hot pot” 
(shuanyangrou), a popular hot pot mentioned above, is a typical example. 
Eating mutton hot pot has made chopsticks indispensable, for it requires 
one to cook the food items in the simmering pot at the center of the table. 
The nimbleness of chopsticks allows one to choose the thinly sliced meat 
and chopped vegetables in a desired portion and load them in the pot. 
Once the meat is ready - having swished it in the hot broth - it is lifted up 
by the chopsticks and dipped first into the sauces before being finally 
delivered to one’s mouth. In brief, chopsticks are essential in eating a hot 
pot. By contrast, it is hard to use a spoon for the above tasks, for the food 
items can slip off and fall from it. 

Chinese legend attributes the invention of mutton hot pot to Kublai 
Khan (121 5-1294), the grandson of Genghis Khan and founder of the 
Yuan dynasty in China. It is said that while campaigning in China, Kublai 
once had a craving for mutton stew, common in Mongolian cookery. As 
the chef was making it, his army came under attack. To save time, the chef 
sliced the mutton into thin pieces and threw the slices in the boiling water 
for fast cooking. He then spread salt and condiments on them. Kublai 
quickly gobbled them all up and praised the taste. To many Chinese, 
mutton hot pot might be the quintessential hot pot. But the hot pot also 

“Luxury culture” in the Ming is identified by Jack Goody in his “The Origin of Chinese 
Food Culture,” Di 6 jie Zhongguo yinshi wenhua xueshu yantaohui lunwenji {Proceedings 
of the 6th symposium of Chinese food and drink culture) (Taipei: Zhongguo yinshi 
wenhua jijinhui, 2003), 2-4. Also Craig Clunas, Superfluous Things: Material Culture 
and Social Status in Early Modern China (Urbana: University oflllinois Press, 1991); and 
Timothy Brook, The Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China 
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998). 

Using chopsticks: customs, manners and etiquette 107 

resembles a stew, which has been a common dish throughout Asia for 
centuries. In a recipe book written by Lin Hong in the twelfth century, for 
example, the author recalls that once he went to Mt. Wuyi, located in 
Southeast China, to visit a recluse on a snowy day. He was treated with 
rabbit meat, which, according to his description, was cooked the same way 
mutton hot pot was made: the meat was first sliced thinly then loaded into 
a boiling broth. Lin also records that he, along with other guests, was 
asked to use chopsticks to load the meat into the broth. After cooking the 
meat in the broth for a little while, they used chopsticks to pick up the meat 
and dipped it in sauces before delivering it to their mouths. This too is the 
way mutton hot pot is usually eaten nowadays. In fact, Lin points out that 
besides rabbit, people also cooked pork and mutton the same way - the 
cold weather at the top of the mountains might have helped them to 
prepare the meat this way. He also mentions that several years later, he 
saw restaurants in Lin’an (Hangzhou) adopting the same cooking method, 
though he did not specify what meat was used.^®’ 

The way mutton hot pot, or any hot pot in general, is cooked and its 
main food ingredient (lamb and mutton) is prepared suggests that it must 
have been more popular among the nomadic peoples. Compared with the 
people in the south, people in the north, the nomads in particular, con- 
sumed more animal meat, be it lamb, pork or beef. They also preferred to 
eat food hot, which is essentially how a hot pot is usually eaten; the diners 
pick the food from the hot broth right after it is cooked and deliver it to 
their mouths. One essential step in cooking the hot pot is to first freeze the 
meat so that it can be sliced very thinly. After being loaded into the pot, 
the cold meat will then hiss in the boiling broth and quickly roll up. Before 
the invention of refrigerators, it would have been hard to freeze the meat 
in the temperate and subtropical south. After founding the Qing dynasty, it 
was the Manchus who made mutton hot pot a more popular dish in North 
China. Although they themselves preferred pork to lamb, the Manchu 
court turned to the dish on occasion. Over time, mutton hot pot also 
found acceptance among city residents in Beijing and other neighboring 

Besides promoting mutton hot pot, the Manchus were also credited 
with creating their own hot pot, which used sliced pork - their favorite 
meat - and Chinese cabbage, among other things. Koreans are also fond of 
hot pot dishes, or sinseollo and jjigae. The former is more similar to a 

Lin Hong, Shanjia qinggong {Simple foods at mountains) (Beijing: Zhongguo shangye 
chubanshe, 1985), 48. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

Chinese hot pot in that the broth is boiled in the middle of the table, 
whereas the latter resembles more a thick soup, often cooked beforehand. 
Hot pot, or nabemono (lit. foodstuffs [cooked] in a pot), is also popular 
among the Japanese. There are two kinds as well. One is shabu shabu, or 
“swish swish,” which is cooked similarly to mutton hot pot and other hot 
pots from the Asian mainland. The other is sukiyaki, which seems more 
Japanese but may have some Portuguese or European influences. As the 
chief ingredient of these two particular varieties of hot pot is sliced beef or 
other meat, both the shabu shabu and sukiyaki register modern influences 
in Japanese cuisine, as the Japanese consumed little animal meat before the 
nineteenth century. But cooking foods (fish, kelp, vegetables, mushrooms, 
tofu, etc.) in a pot to make a stew or a hearty soup (as nabemono) must 
have had a long history in Japan, as boiling is a common cooking method 
there and around the world. 

After chopsticks gained their advantage over the spoon in eating 
communal meals, and hot pots in particular, their position on the table 
was also adjusted. As shown in Tang mural paintings, the Chinese placed 
their chopsticks horizontally on the table. But in Ming paintings, chop- 
sticks were already positioned vertically, pointing in the direction of 
the food dishes at the middle of the table, as if to ready them for 
transportation (Plate i8). This placement has become most common 
nowadays in China, Korea and Vietnam, where communal eating has 
been adopted to a varying degree. By comparison, having retained the 
custom of eating meals individually, the Japanese have continued to place 
their chopsticks horizontally on the table, such as in a bento box. When 
they use the utensil to lift and deliver the food in front of them to their 
mouths, this movement is mostly horizontal, moving from right to left as 
tradition demands one use one’s right hand to hold chopsticks. But 
interestingly, when eating shabu shabu and/or sukiyaki, the Japanese 
sometimes also put and leave chopsticks vertically, so they face the 
ingredients at the center of the table. 

If the Chinese in the Ming began to place chopsticks vertically on the table, 
this might also be because their emperor demanded it. A Ming historical text 
records that after Zhu Yuanzhang founded the Ming, he invited some noted 
literati to a banquet at his court. After the banquet, one of them, named Tang 
Su, raised his chopsticks with both of his hands, thanking the Emperor. 
Surprised by his gesture, Zhu asked him what kind of table manners this 
was. Tang answered that this was what he had learned as a child in his 
hometown. Instead of appreciating Tang’s politeness, Zhu scolded, “How 
could you treat me, the Son of Heaven, with vulgar village manners!” Tang 

Using chopsticks: customs, manners and etiquette 109 

was dismissed and exiled as punishment."^” In hindsight, Tang was perhaps 
not at fault, for what he did might have drawn on a recommended dining 
tradition in China before that time. (Chapter 4 has mentioned that this 
gesture might have originated in Buddhist temples and the Japanese still do 
it today, though they tend to do it before a meal, rather than after.) 
However, the Ming Emperor was annoyed by it, perhaps because he had 
grown up as a poor peasant child and was too embarrassed to admit that 
he was ignorant of older traditions. 

This episode indicates that as communal eating came to be widely 
practiced in Chinese society, chopsticks etiquette and table manners also 
changed as a result. But outside China, some of the traditional customs 
remained, and hence are preserved well to this day. The fact that by social 
norms modern-day Koreans still use both spoons and chopsticks as an 
inseparable set to convey meals is a good example. In Korea today, it is 
common for the two utensils to be sold together at a store, which could 
well surprise other Asians in the chopsticks cultural sphere. That is, just 
as Ch’oe Pu, Yun Kuk-Hyong and other Koreans who went to Ming 
China were shocked that the Chinese no longer used a spoon in convey- 
ing grain food, a Chinese person visiting Korea today might be equally 
surprised by the fact that s/he cannot purchase a pair of chopsticks 
without also buying a spoon! The Korean case is a unique one in the 
chopsticks cultural sphere. 

That the Japanese have generally continued the meimeizen (one meal 
per person) style in eating is another example. To some degree, the bento 
box meal, ubiquitous in Japanese society today, especially at lunch time, is 
emblematic of how successfully the Japanese have upheld the dietary 
custom of olden days. In ancient China, foods in a tray were called shan 
(zen in Japanese), so the word shanizen refers to a meal. Thus, meimeizen 
means that everyone has one’s own food tray. Along with the use of 
individual food trays come individualized utensils; in Japanese, a pair of 
chopsticks is most commonly called ichizen — 1§, suggesting that one pair 
of chopsticks goes in one meal tray. Over time, the food tray became the 
food box, or bento box, for portability. The making of a bento box meal 
reflects Japanese culinary influences. For instance, as items are placed into 
various compartments in the box, the bento box meal pays attention to the 
visual presentation of the food, a tradition in Japanese cuisine. Since the meal 
is meant to be portable, the bento box is small enough to be held in one hand, 
which means that the chopsticks placed in the box are also short, another 

Cited in Lan, Kuaizi, buzhishi kuaizi, 82. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

Japanese characteristic since most chopsticks used in Japan are shorter 
than their counterparts elsewhere (Plate Last but not least, continu- 
ing the meimeizen tradition, the bento box meal is individually packaged. 
From the fourteenth century, this dining style has become distinctly 
Japanese, for the Chinese, the Vietnamese and Koreans all have more or 
less adopted communal eating. By comparison, many Japanese families still 
serve cooked dishes on individual plates or bowls; it is frowned upon for 
anyone to dig and pick up foodstuffs with their chopsticks from a common 
dish before serving. Called jikabashi (lit. direct chopsticks), using chopsticks 
this way is unacceptable for many Japanese, particularly if they are dining 
with guests at a public restaurant. Instead, the Japanese are expected to use 
toribashi, or serving/community chopsticks, to transfer the food contents 
from common dishes to their own plates or bowls. 

Communal eating seems also connected to the communal use of chop- 
sticks. Outside Japan, it is normal to see a family sharing the use of utensils; 
before a meal, each member randomly picks up a pair of chopsticks or a 
spoon in a container or in a drawer. But in Japan, this is more a practice for 
eating at a restaurant (where one finds a bunch of chopsticks in a receptacle 
on the dining table) than in a household. Members of a Japanese family tend 
to have their own chopsticks and other utensils (spoons and bowls, etc.) for 
daily meals. And the shape, quality and length of chopsticks can differ 
markedly among members of a family, reflecting the position and gender 
of their users in the family. For instance, the chopsticks used by adults tend 
to be of better quality than those used by children, based on the assumption 
that children are not as careful with the utensil. There is also a gender differ- 
ence: the utensils for a female member of the family tend to be shorter and 
smaller, since women’s hands are generally smaller. But these could be more 
colorful and more highly decorated than those for a male family member, as 
shown by the characteristics of miotobashi - “husband-wife chopsticks” 
(Plate zi). To a varying degree, all these practices, too, exist in societies 

Mukai 6c Hashimoto, Hashi, 205-208; and Harada Nobuo, Riben liaoli de shehuishi: 
heshi yu Riben wenhua (A social history of Japanese cuisine: on Japanese food and 
Japanese culture), trans. Liu Yang (Hong Kong: Sanlian shudian, 2011), 63-68. Also, 
Xu, Riben yinshi wenhua^ 85-88. Several Chinese scholars have also pointed out that the 
Japanese use shorter chopsticks because of their individual dining custom. See Lii Lin, 
"ZhongRi kuaizhu lishi yu wenhua zhi tantao” (Explorations of the chopsticks’ history 
and culture in China and Japan), Keji xinxi (Science and technology information), 
10 (2008), 1 1 5-1 17; Li Qingxiang, “Riben de zhu yu wenhua: jianyu Zhongguo kuaizi 
wenhua bijiao” (Chopsticks and chopsticks culture in Japan: a comparison with Chinese 
chopsticks culture), Jiefangjun waiguoyu xueyuan xuebao (Journal of PLA University of 
Foreign Languages), 32:5 (Spring 2009), 94-97. 

Using chopsticks: customs, manners and etiquette iii 

outside Japan - it is likely that a senior member in a family will have his/her 
special utensil, chopsticks or otherwise, in China, Korea and Vietnam. But 
it is uncommon, or less common, for each and every member of the family 
to have their individual eating tools. 

Although invented in Japan, serving chopsticks, or toribashi, have also 
become increasingly popular with to Koreans, the Chinese and, more 
recently, the Vietnamese, on social and formal occasions rather than in a 
family situation. But even if employing a pair of serving chopsticks is not as 
common as in Japan, it is often observed among the Chinese and the 
Vietnamese that when a host wants to serve foodstuffs to a guest’s plate to 
show their hospitality, they will reverse their chopsticks and use the end 
not touched by their mouth to complete the task. Indeed, as discussed in 
Chapter 2, how to carry food neatly without affecting others’ appetite was a 
constant concern, already receiving ample attention in ancient China, as 
demonstrated by many detailed instructions given by the Classic of Rites. In 
the chopsticks cultural sphere, as the utensil gained increasing importance in 
conveying food, there developed several unwritten yet generally accepted 
rules of etiquette, including but not limited to the following: 

(1) Chopsticks are not used to make a noise (especially in the mouth), 
to draw attention, or to gesticulate. Playing with chopsticks is 
considered bad mannered, even vulgar. 

(2) Chopsticks should not be used to dig around or mine for food in the 
dishes, looking for a particular morsel. 

(3 ) Chopsticks are not used to move bowls or plates. 

(4) Chopsticks are not used to toy with one’s food or with communal 

(5) Chopsticks are not used to impale food, save in rare instances. 
Exceptions include tearing large food items asunder, such as fish, 
vegetables and kimchi. In informal use, small, difficult-to-pick-up 
items such as cherry tomatoes or fishballs may be speared, but this 
use might be frowned upon. 

(6) Chopsticks should not be left standing vertically in a bowl of rice or 
other food. Any pair of stick-like objects pointing upward resem- 
bles the incense sticks that some Asians use as offerings to deceased 
family members; certain funerary rites designate offerings of food 
to the dead using standing chopsticks."*^ 

These guidelines are provided, with some revision, by the “chopsticks” entry on Wikipedia 
(English), accessed on August 15, 2012. I cite these guidelines because they are, presum- 
ably, most accessed among peoples around the world today. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

This not-to-do list addresses concerns in three categories. First and 
foremost is to prevent any messy and unpleasant dining behavior, as it 
spoils the appetite as well as the food of others. These rules are cross- 
cultural, comparable to the utensil etiquette in other cultures outside Asia. 
The second are directions specific to chopsticks use; namely, how to 
employ the instrument properly in transporting food, not disturbing and 
offending others. This could be at times challenging when one shares food 
with others at a table, using either chopsticks or a spoon or both, hence 
deserving more discussion below. And the third are relevant cultural and 
religious issues and meanings involved in using the utensil, a topic to be 
treated in the next chapter. 

Specifically, some terms in the Japanese language describe several com- 
mon taboos in chopsticks use, frowned upon by most users across Asia, in 
spite of the noted differences in their dietary practices and traditions. 
For instance, it is a faux pas for anyone to hold chopsticks stuck with rice 
grains or other food remains, or to use chopsticks to lift food that have either 
droped or driped onto the table. The latter is called namidahashi or “tearing 
chopsticks,” in Japanese. In addition, there are such descriptions 
as saguribashi - probing chopsticks, mayoibashi - lost chopsticks, and 
utsuribashi - transporting chopsticks. Saguribashi refers to the act of using 
one’s chopsticks to dig or mine for food, rather than grasping a particular 
morsel swiftly and decisively. Mayoibashi describes how one points one’s 
chopsticks at different dishes as though one cannot decide which to eat, 
whereas utsuribashi refers to transporting food items from one pair of 
chopsticks to another, without first putting them down in a bowl or plate. 
The Japanese also frown upon those who keep chopsticks in the mouth for a 
long time and make a noise. Such behavior is called neburibashi - licking 
chopsticks. With minor variations, these characterizations also exist in the 
Chinese language.'*^ 

To ensure that one avoids all these impolite acts while using chop- 
sticks, it is generally required that one first learn to hold the utensil 
correctly and properly. Over the centuries, chopsticks users have indeed 
come up with one effective way of using the implement, accepted and 
practiced almost universally across the chopsticks cultural sphere. A 
brief description of this method is already given in the Introduction. 
Since nowadays children often fail to learn the correct method at home 
when growing up, some elementary schools in South Korea have gone as far 
as to offer drill lessons to teach the children how to apply the utensil in 

Li, “Riben de zhu yu wenhua: jianyu Zhongguo kuaizi wenhua bijiao. 

Using chopsticks: customs, manners and etiquette 113 

conveying a meal. In order to encourage chopsticks use among children, an 
annual chopsticks festival (August 4) was created in Japan in 1980, which 
was introduced initially by some local governments but now has spread to 
many parts of the country."^'* The Japanese also designed and made train- 
ing chopsticks for children, which are connected at the top part with a 
proper space in-between. The upper chopstick also has rings in which 
users put their index and middle fingers so that they can hold both sticks 
correctly for effective use (Plate 23). 

Such efforts to continue the traditional method of chopsticks use are 
made because experience has shown and proven that in order for the two 
sticks to grasp a food item firmly, it is best that one keep a certain space 
between them and only use the upper stick to make the pincer movement. 
This is why, as exemplified by the Japanese training chopsticks, the upper 
stick has two rings for one to insert the index and middle fingers for making 
the stick move, whereas the lower stick has none, since it is to be rested 
securely in the hand. All this is to address the need to clutch and carry a food 
item swiftly and adroitly, but avoid touching other items as much as 
possible, nor to let items drop or drip on the table. “All rules of table 
manners,” wrote Emily Post, author of the popular Etiquette (1922), “are 
made to avoid ugliness; to let anyone see what you have in your mouth is 
repulsive; to make a noise is to suggest an animal; to make a mess is 
disgusting. ”45 That is, table manners were developed, primarily, to create 
and maintain a neat and pleasant eating environment. This seems a univer- 
sal concern. 

Take the “tearing chopsticks” as an example. This conduct, caused 
either by sloppiness or by their lack of skill in using the utensil, becomes 
odious and even offensive in the chopsticks cultural sphere because it 
looks messy, unclean and unpleasant, ruining the eating environment. 
Yet the way to prevent it has varied from place to place. In China and 
Vietnam, diners are either encouraged or required to transfer, using 
chopsticks as they generally do, food contents from the common dishes 
first to their own bowls before delivering them to their mouths. In so 
doing, they can at times lift and move their bowls closer to the dishes from 
where the foodstuffs are being transferred. As the travel distance is shorter, it 
decreases the chance of food dropping or dripping from the chopsticks 

N. A., “Hanguo kaishe kuaizike” {Koreans teaching chopsticks in schools), Hebei shenji 
(Hebei audit), 12 (195)5). About the chopsticks festival in Japan, see www.subject-knowl 60 1 5 8-Japanese-chopsticks-Festival.html. 

Quoted in Giblin, From Hand to Mouth, 64. 

1 14 Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

into the dishes or onto the table. By comparison, it is frowned upon in 
Korea to raise the rice bowl from the table. In order to avert “tearing 
chopsticks,” Koreans apply the spoon, instead of chopsticks, in carrying 
any dripping food. Koreans are taught to use a spoon to transport rice 
for the same reason. For if the rice bowl is not to be picked up from the 
table, when one uses chopsticks to transport rice from the table directly 
to the mouth one tends to drop grains along the way. Thus, it is seen in 
some Korean families that someone moves rice from the rice bowl first 
to a soupy dish and then moves the second bowl closer to the mouth, 
using a spoon to eat both in a mixed form. This practice, which is 
informal, might suggest that Koreans remain accustomed to eating 
grain starch in a soupy form, explaining their tendency to use the 
spoon for its transportation. 

Koreans do not raise the rice bowl from the table and hold it in their 
hands, for such behavior is associated with begging, as beggars tend to do 
that while asking for food. To prevent rice grains falling in the process of 
delivery, it is acceptable for Koreans to lower their heads when eating a 
meal. The idea is to shorten the distance from the bowl or plate to the 
mouth. But the Chinese tradition is generally against lowering one’s head 
in eating food, for doing so reminds one of pigs eating. Instead, while 
keeping their backs straight, the Chinese lift the rice bowl from the table 
and use chopsticks to push rice into the mouth, as do the Vietnamese and 
Japanese. The idea however is the same - to cut down the distance for 
which the food item is carried by chopsticks, lest it drop or drip, or make a 
“tearing chopsticks” scene. Since the Japanese, the Vietnamese and the 
Chinese tend to only use chopsticks to transport both grain and nongrain 
foods in their day-to-day life, it is practical for them to lift their bowls to 
their mouths in order to avoid any dropping incidents and maintain a neat 
eating style. On occasions when a spoon is also used to eat a food, such as a 
soup noodle (e.g. lamian/ramen), one can use both the spoon and the 
chopsticks simultaneously. But in Korea, while the two utensils are always 
paired together, one is only allowed to use one of them at a time. Custom 
demands that one hold either the spoon or the chopsticks in one hand 
(usually the right per tradition), but not the two of them in both hands to 
carry both grain and nongrain foods simultaneously. 

“One is what one eats,” as a common adage goes. Perhaps one is also 
how one eats. Table manners are created for all diners at one sitting to 
enjoy the food pleasantly, not being disturbed or disgusted by unusual or 
unruly behaviors. For an individual, to abide by the accepted dining 
custom usually means to keep up one’s appearance - earning respect for 

Using chopsticks: customs, manners and etiquette 115 

showing politeness or not being looked down upon by others. The 
Chinese character for “eating” - chi - is the word “to beg” plus the 
mouth radical, which literally means “the mouth that begs.” But obvi- 
ously, few Chinese want to beg for food or eat like a beggar. In the case of 
raising one’s rice bowl to the mouth, the correct way is to open one’s palm 
and use the four fingers to hold the bowl while placing the thumb on its 
rim. Keeping the thumb on top of the bowl is necessary not only because it 
helps stabilize the grip, but also because holding the rice bowl in this way 
distinguishes one from a begger. Presumably to lower themselves while 
asking for and receiving food, beggars are thought to hold the bowl with 
all five fingers at the bottom, not leaving any of them on the rim. Tapping 
the bowl is another taboo, for this is what a beggar might do to attract 

One should do one’s best to avoid rude eating behavior. Conversely, 
one could also, in pursuit of sophistocation, make an effort to imitate and 
adopt a more refined dining style. Koreans’ insistence on using both a 
spoon and chopsticks and their inclination for metal utensils might be 
good illustrations in this regard. When asked about the origin of these 
two dining customs, many Koreans would answer that these preferences 
drew on the dining habit of the yangban (noble) class in the Joseon 
dynasty. As Confucianism was held as the ruling ideology during the 
period, Korean nobles followed the ancient Confucian rituals and 
employed chopsticks only to clasp the food contents in dishes, instead of 
using them to convey grain food. To a yangban, using chopsticks to shovel 
rice into one’s mouth was undignified and inelegant, hence unacceptable. 
Little wonder that Yun Kuk-Hyong was dumbfounded when he saw the 
Chinese regularly doing it in the Ming, for many Korean literati considered 
the dynasty the exemplar of cultural excellence. The yangban class also 
used mostly metal utensils, which helped turn them - the silver variety in 
particular - into a status symbol in Korean society, with a lasting influence 
still present to this day. 

But it is not always up to the upper class to set etiquette standards. The 
evolution of table manners and dietary customs has indicated mutual 
influences and exchanges between social classes. The acceptance of the 
communal dining style could well be a good example, as would the habit of 
employing chopsticks as the only eating tool for meals. At least in China, 
these two seem to have followed a bottom-up course of development. For 
even today, when dining at a formal dinner in an up-market restaurant, not 
only are both spoon and chopsticks provided on the table, but food is also 
more likely to be served to one’s plates, usually by a waiter; diners are 

ii6 Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

much more careful not to put their utensils into the common dishes. As 
mentioned at the beginning of the chapter, around the twelfth century 
when most diners at public eateries had switched to chopsticks as their 
dining tool, Lu You, a scholar-official, pronounced that he still used a 
spoon to scoop the cooked millet, just as his counterparts would have 
done in the previous Tang dynasty. The Introduction also noted that in 
Korea today, while using both the spoon and chopsticks is the social 
norm, many Koreans are also inclined to pick up rice with their chop- 
sticks, especially in a family setting. Communal eating is not common in 
Japan, thus jikabashi is unacceptable, as said above. But the fact that the 
term exists in Japanese suggests that such behavior is not so uncommon 
as one might think, because some Japanese find it acceptable and also do 
it in family dining."*^ 

Needless to say, sharing food is an effective way to improve human 
relationships. It is usual that when a person desires to extend or pursue a 
friendship with another person, they often suggest that they have a meal 
together. When their friendship reaches a certain level, or when the two 
become lovers, then sharing food and drink becomes frequent, as part of 
an act of affection. In other words, intimacy often trumps other concerns, 
health or otherwise. In many parts of the world today, one still sees that a 
mother feeds her baby with her spoon or even her mouth, which is 
unhygienic but not so uncommon. No wonder that communal dining 
tends to take root first among family members, or in informal circum- 
stances, before extending to other more formal occasions. When inviting a 
guest to a family meal, many Chinese and Vietnamese families find it odd 
not to share food with the guest, because the occasion is meant to demon- 
strate their hospitality and extend their friendship. By the same token, 
while the Japanese feel more comfortable eating food individually, they 
also like shabu shabu and sukiyaki (for which they do share food from a 
common pot) and find them a useful way to develop relationships. 

Nonetheless, communal dining does have its downside: many people 
are uncomfortable about eating food touched by others, especially by a 
stranger. Some of the aforementioned rules of chopsticks etiquette illus- 
trate that concern. One instance is the so-called “probing chopsticks,” or 
using one’s chopsticks to dig and mine for food in the common dishes. 
“Licking chopsticks” is another. Both examples are distasteful because 

There are interesting discussions about jikabashi and how acceptable it is in Japanese 
society today. See http://k0machi.y0miuri.c0.jP/t/2008/0110/163598.htm. It appears that 
many do not find it so offensive. 

Using chopsticks: customs, manners and etiquette 


people are, presumably, concerned about anyone passing (excessive) 
saliva, or germs, onto the dishes intended for all. Germ theory and the 
notion of food hygiene have, of course, only been developed in recent 
centuries. As late as the nineteenth century, most Americans, finds Nancy 
Tomes, were little concerned about “contamination of water and food.” 
“They exchanged combs, hairbrushes, and even toothbrushes, and fed 
babies from their mouths and spoons, with no sense of hazard.” 
However, while it was mostly unknown that food could be an agent for 
spreading disease, earlier societies were not entirely unaware that one 
might get sick from eating certain types of food, or from taking food 
from those who were sick. Nor were they indifferent to the cleanliness of 
food. Thus, before the notions of germs and hygiene became well known to 
the public, table manners and eating etiquette had already been developed 
in some societies, if only for demonstrating politeness and civility. They 
ruled against certain types of dining behavior not only because they were 
messy, but also because such messiness made the food look unclean and 
uninviting to other diners. 

Interestingly, using chopsticks, instead of a spoon, in sharing food 
balances the desire to be friendly with others and the concern about food 
contamination. For if used properly and carefully, following the right 
directions, chopsticks minimize the chance of spoiling food with one’s 
saliva. Compared with the spoon, chopsticks are smaller in size. They are 
also generally pointed at the bottom, not only for the sake of accurately 
picking up the food item, but also for avoiding touching other food 
contents in the common dish. The dining custom in Korea is a case in 
point. While they use both the spoon and chopsticks for their meals, 
Koreans are more likely to use chopsticks to partake of side dishes (such 
as kimchi) on the table, but not the spoon. One presumed reason is that the 
spoon, once used for eating rice or other grain cereal, often has grain 
particles stuck on it, and hence looks unclean. And an unclean spoon itself 
is disapproved of by Koreans.'*'^ In China where communal dining origi- 
nated, most Chinese traditionally only employed chopsticks to share food, 
seldom the spoon. Indeed, it was deemed unacceptable if anyone put a 
spoon that had been in the mouth into a big bowl of soup intended for all 

See Nancy Tomes, The Gospel of Germs: Men, Women, and the Microbe in American Life 
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), 3. 

Pan Lili 6c Jiang Kun, “Guanyu ZhongHan chuantong yongcan lijie de yanjiu” (Studies of 
the traditional eating etiquette in China and Korea), Xiandai qiye jiaoyu (Modern 
Enterprise Education), 10 (2008), 158-159. 

ii8 Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

the others at the table. Such a circumstance usually demanded a serving 
spoon, or a ladle, for everyone to scoop the soup first into their own bowl. 

All in all, when communal eating became a widely practiced dietary 
custom, chopsticks further proved their usefulness. As a utensil, they were 
now not only used for transporting nongrain food dishes but also grain 
food, still the main portion of a meal for most people. As such, chopsticks 
became the primary eating tool whereas the spoon became secondary. And 
compared with the spoon, chopsticks are more versatile and flexible; in 
conveying food, chopsticks enable a diner to take whatever they desire, 
and in a desirable portion. As chopsticks assumed a more important role in 
the Ming, Chinese archaeologists have found that the two utensils were no 
longer buried together in tombs. Instead, more chopsticks than spoons 
were uncovered in Ming tombs, indicating that their separation had begun. 
And this trend continued into the following Qing period. Compared with 
their counterparts in the earlier periods, the chopsticks made in Ming and 
Qing China became more refined. Whether they were made of wood, 
bamboo or metal, the chopsticks used in the period often had exquisite 
decorations and engravings, suggesting their increased importance as a 
dining utensil."^® 

This reversal between spoon and chopsticks, of course, did not lead to 
the disappearance of spoons in Asia. It only led to the spoon taking on a 
new role in assisting the eating of nongrain dishes, soup in particular 
(Koreans are the known exception, even though some Koreans also 
drink soup with rice in it, as mentioned above). Eating a hot pot meal 
might be a good illustration. Chopsticks are indispensable for loading as 
well as conveying the food items cooking in the broth. But at the end, 
people often like to drink the broth, as it has absorbed the flavor of all the 
ingredients. For that purpose, a ladle and also a spoon become necessary, 
for drinking directly from the pot (which is still hot) is impractical. The 
changing role of the spoon was also shown in its design. The dagger- 
shaped hi had long fallen into disuse, as mentioned above. During the 
eighteenth century, a new egg-shaped spoon made of porcelain, known as 
a “soup spoon” (tangchi), became popular in China. Like a modern spoon, 
it is circular, deep, and designed to hold liquids easily. This spoon later also 
spread to Japan and earned the name of chirirenge, literally meaning 
“fallen lotus petal”. The popularity of this new soup spoon perhaps 
completed the change in roles of the spoon and chopsticks as dining 
tools for the Chinese and beyond. 

Liu, Zhongguo zhu wenhuashi^ 304-328. 

Using chopsticks: customs, manners and etiquette 119 

While the design of spoons improved, chopsticks changed their name. 
In early China, chopsticks were pronounced zhu and written with either 
the bamboo or wood radical. But during the Ming, people in the lower 
Yangzi River region of Southeast China began to call chopsticks kuaizi (lit. 
quick little boys). Lu Rong’s (1436-1494) Notes in the Legume Garden 
(Shuyuan zaiji) explains that the new name was given by the sailors along 
the Grand Canal because of their superstition. Though the pronunciation 
zhu can mean “help,” it also sounds the same as “stop,” which is a taboo in 
sailing. Hence the sailors changed it to kuaizi, combining the word kuai 
(fast or quick) with the suffix zi or er - kuaier. In a later period, the bamboo 
radical was added on top of the kuai, indicating the material from which 
chopsticks were usually made. Like the substitution of chopsticks for the 
spoon in eating cooked grain, this nomenclatural change took a bottom-up 
route and became rather slowly accepted by the educated class, as admitted 
by Li Yuheng, another Ming scholar, in his Random Notes on the Barges 
(Tuipeng wuyu).^° Thus for a long while, zhu and kuaizi remained inter- 
changeable. In the famous Dream of the Red Chamber (Hongloumeng), a 
novel written in the late eighteenth century, the author(s) used both zhu 
and kuaizi to refer to chopsticks. Through the nineteenth century, kuaizi 
remained a vernacular term as scholars still preferred zhu in their writ- 
ings.’ ' But over time, it gradually became more accepted by the modern 
Chinese whereas the word zhu, as of today, has become a historical term. 
By contrast, the name of chopsticks has not changed elsewhere in the 
chopsticks cultural sphere. It is jeotgarak in Korean, hashi in Japanese 
and dua in Vietnamese, all of which might be considered derivatives of the 
Chinese word zhu. 

Liu Yun, ed., Zhongguo zhuwenhua daguan (A grand view of chopsticks culture in China) 
(Beijing: Kexue chubanshe, 195)6), 52.-53. 

Lu Rong, Shuyuan zaji (Notes in the legume garden) (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1985), 8. 
Kuaizi appears in Luo Guanzhong & Feng Menglong, Pingyao zhuan (Subduing the 
demons), and Xizhou Sheng’s Xingshi yinyuan (A romance to awaken the world), whereas 
zhu is used in the Mingshi (Ming history), compiled by Qing official historians, and in Ji 
Xiaolan’s Yuewei caotang biji (Stories by Ji Xiaolan). These texts were all written during 
the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, or during the late Ming and early Qing. 


A pair inseparable: chopsticks as gift, 
metaphor and symbol 

The joy of eating is given great importance in China; and cooking, through 
the decades, has been dreamed and fussed over, in times of want as well as in 
times of plenty, until it has ceased to be plain cooking, but has grown and 
developed into an art. Food has been represented through other mediums of 
art, especially poetry, literature and folklore; and these tales and food beliefs 
have been handed down, from generation to generation, with ever-increasing 

Doreen Yen Hung Feng, The Joy of Chinese Cooking 

Green when young and yellow old 
They have shared their minds forever. 

Whether bitter or sweet. 

They always taste them together.' 

Zhuo Wenjun, a woman who lived in Han dynasty China, allegedly wrote 
this poem to her lover Sima Xiangru (i 79-1 27 bce), when she gave him a 
pair of chopsticks. In his legendary work, Sima Qian records some details 
about their love story, making it proverbial throughout Chinese history. 
Sima Xiangru was an illustrious writer, known for his mastery of rhapsody 
ifu), a prevalent literary genre during the period. (Shu Xi, for instance, 
wrote a rhapsody on doughy food in the third century, as mentioned in 
Chapter 3.) As Sima Xiangru’s fame grew, he also received several mar- 
riage proposals. On one occasion, Zhuo Wangsun, the richest man in the 
country, invited Sima to a banquet. Sima went reluctantly. At the party, he 
chanted a rhapsody, receiving many accolades. Attracted by Sima’s talent. 

^ Fu Yun, “Qutan kuaizi wenhua” (An informal talk on the chopsticks culture), Luoyang 
ribao (Luoyang daily), November 13, 2008. 


A pair inseparable: chopsticks as gift, metaphor and symbol 121 

Zhuo Wenjun, Zhuo Wangsun’s newly widowed daughter, fell in love 
with him. But her father disapproved of it because Sima Xiangru was poor. 
However, the two managed to elope to Chengdu, Sichuan, eventually 
forcing the father to give in and accept their marriage. 

If Zhao was determined to be with Sima Xiangru, her poem also betrays 
that she was a bit uncertain whether the love between them would be 
lasting, thus she presented both the chopsticks and the poem to express her 
wish and hope. Beautiful as it is, the poem, as well as the chopsticks-giving 
story, was most likely made up by people of later times (it is not found in 
Sima Qian’s work). However, since chopsticks are always used in pairs, 
demonstrating their inseparableness, they have long become a favorite gift 
for newlyweds, as well as a token of love exchanged between couples 
and lovers in the chopsticks cultural sphere. In Japan, when people go to 
Shinto shrines to ask for fortunes and blessings, they can also purchase 
several types of chopsticks. Two kinds of chopsticks are most popular: 
enmusubibashi, or “lover chopsticks,” and miotobashi, or “husband-wife 
chopsticks.” Like those used in Japanese households, these chopsticks vary 
in length; the stick for the man tends to be slightly longer than the one for 
the woman (zo-21 cm vs. zo-i8 cm)."^ Aside from Shinto shrines, these 
chopsticks can also be purchased in stores and given as a present to lovers 
and couples (Plate zi). 

Likewise, across China, among the Chinese and minority groups, 
chopsticks are not only a popular wedding gift but also a popular object 
at wedding ceremonies. In his book, Lan Xiang describes many wedding 
customs, many of which involve the use of chopsticks. In Shanxi Province 
of Northwest China, for instance, when the groom and his entourage go 
to the bride’s home to fetch her, her father often prepares a pair of bottles 
containing some grain. Using red strings, he ties these bottles together 
with a pair of chopsticks. These are given by the father to both the bride 
and the groom, carrying his wish for their inseparableness and lasting 
love after marriage. Elsewhere in Shanxi, the chopsticks given to newly- 
weds by the bride’s family are first to be used by a boy, usually her brother 
or nephew, at the wedding banquet after he escorts the bride’s dowry to 
the groom’s family. To ensure the couple’s inseparableness, the two sticks 
must be as identical as possible and have a smooth surface, in the hope of 
the couple’s perfect “match” and their “smooth” life together in the 
future.^ In other words, the pair of chopsticks is not supposed to be 

^ Isshiki, Hashi no Bunkashi, ^ han,Kuaizi, buzhishi kuaizi, 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

in different colors, designs or lengths like the “husband-wife chopsticks” 
in Japan. 

For their “inseparableness,” chopsticks have become a useful tool for 
proposing marriage and announcing a new relationship - the Japanese 
enmusubibashi is an illustration of the latter. Among the Klau people in 
Guizhou, China, once the young man finds his love, his mother will carry a 
pair of chopsticks wrapped in red paper, to the girl’s family to propose 
marriage. She usually need not utter a word because the chopsticks she 
brings with her have already made clear her purpose. Few know when 
this began. But instances where chopsticks are used in making wedding 
proposals were found in traditional China. According to a thirteenth- 
century text, when a man intends to marry someone, he is to propose 
marriage to the bride’s parents and seek her family’s permission. On such 
an occasion, he will bring myriad gifts to his intended future parents-in- 
law. Should his proposal be accepted, the future bride’s parents will send 
his family objects such as rolls of silk and jewelry, together with a pair of 
wine cups, which hold water instead of wine. Most importantly, the bride’s 
family needs to include a pair of chopsticks, two green scallions and four 
golden fish to show their agreement to the marriage. The pair of chopsticks 
is called huiyu zhu (lit. give-back fish and chopsticks) though the text does 
not specify what all these objects stand for. Giving them, however, seems 
essential in completing the engagement process. In order to exhibit their 
affluence and strong commitment to the proposed marriage, according to 
the text, some wealthy families opt for gold or silver to make the fish and 
chopsticks and silk scallions instead of real ones.^ 

It is quite possible that chopsticks were a part of the gifts from the 
bride’s family because they were deemed indispensable in life. That is, 
chopsticks are a metaphor, or perhaps a metonymy, for life itself. As 
marriage indicates a new beginning in one’s life, many wedding customs 
in China often involve chopsticks to mark such an occasion. Examples of 
this abound. In some regions of Northwest China, when the bride leaves 
her parents’ home for her new home, she is to toss a pair of chopsticks on 
the floor, bidding farewell to the life she had with her parents. In other 
places, a male family member - either her brother or her father - throws a 
pair of chopsticks at the moment when the bride leaves home. After she 

Ibid., 120. 

^ Wu Zimu & Zhou Mi, Mengliang lu, Wulin jiushi {Dreaming of Kaifeng in Hangzhou; 
History of Lin’an) (Ji’nan: Shandong youyi chubanshe, 2001), 281. Meng Yuanlao also 
mentions chopsticks in his Dongjing menghualu, suggesting that the custom might be 
practiced in both North and South China. Meng, Dongjing menghualu, 32-33. 

A pair inseparable: chopsticks as gift, metaphor and symbol 123 

arrives at her new home, the bride then picks up another pair of chopsticks 
as a symbolic gesture of embracing her new life. Moreover, picking up the 
new pair of chopsticks also connotes that she, as a wife, is to help shoulder 
the responsibility for the wellbeing of the new family. There is also a 
tradition for the groom’s family members to hide chopsticks at the couple’s 
new home, asking the bride to seek them out. This is, symbolically, to test 
the bride’s capability; the difficulty she faces in finding these hidden chop- 
sticks comes to serve as a friendly warning about the future challenges she 
may encounter in her new life.*’ 

Among some ethnic minority groups in China, chopsticks tend to figure 
even more prominently in wedding ceremonies (Plate 29). The She people, 
residing in the mountainous areas in Southeast China, have a tradition that 
before leaving home, as the new bride is having her last meal with her 
siblings, she needs to pass her rice bowl and chopsticks to them, not only to 
say goodbye to them but also to ask them to take care of her parents on her 
behalf. At their wedding banquets, the Yao people in Hunan Province have 
a custom that the Master of Ceremonies first feeds the newlyweds simulta- 
neously with two pairs of chopsticks in both hands, whereas the Daur 
people in Manchuria have the newlyweds finish a bowl of glutinous rice 
together, sharing one pair of chopsticks. While the customs are different, 
the chopsticks are a useful tool in teaching the new couple the importance 
of cooperation in sharing their lives together; in the latter case, if the 
chopsticks are a symbol of “inseparableness,” the glutinous rice carries 
the wish for an affectionate - if also “gooey” - relationship between the 

Due to the nomenclatural change occurring in Ming China, discussed 
in the previous chapter, chopsticks came to be known as kuaizi instead 
of zhu. Interestingly, when the sailors called chopsticks kuaizi for 
quick sailing, they perhaps did not realize that the word kuai could also 
combine with le to mean “happiness,” or kuaile, in Chinese. As such, 
chopsticks became more in demand on festive occasions, not merely for 
enjoying the abundance of food. Though the word “zi” is a suffix in kuaizi, 
it could also take on the meaning of “son” or “child.” So with a stretch of 
the imagination, kuaizi could be construed as “having a child/son 
quickly.” This new meaning has added considerably to the appeal of 
chopsticks as a wedding present from the Ming period to this day. 
In fact, the propitious meanings associated with the name change have 
rendered chopsticks a must-have item at and for a wedding, either as 

^ Lan, Kuaizi, buzhishi kuaizi, 88-89, 96-97. 

^ Ibid., 105, 109, 121. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

a present or as a charm for the couple, carrying a wish not only for a good, 
harmonious marriage but also that they will soon be blessed with children. 

The chopsticks-tossing gesture at wedding ceremonies has also gained 
more vigor. In Zhejiang, there is an old tradition where the guests, after the 
newlyweds enter their bedroom, stick a bunch of chopsticks through the 
window into the room - the windows then were covered by paper - and let 
them drop on the floor, representing a wish for the couple to quickly bear a 
child. Others would perform the act at the wedding banquet, with someone 
either singing a song or giving a toast while tossing several pairs of chop- 
sticks on the floor. As chopsticks are a good luck charm, many guests 
would like to pick them up from the floor and take them home. There is 
also a practice in the regions of Jiangsu Province where the groom gives 
away chopsticks to the guests, whereas in Henan members from both the 
bride’s and groom’s families can even “steal” the chopsticks at wedding 
ceremonies to partake in the good fortune of the newlyweds. Just as a 
female guest at a Western wedding ceremony wishes to catch the bouquet 
of flowers thrown by bride, Chinese guests desire a pair of chopsticks on 
such an occasion.* 

Chopsticks also appear frequently in fairytales about love and marriage 
in other Asian countries, even though there was no name change of the 
utensil as in China. The “Hundred-Septa Bamboos” story of Vietnam tells 
that once upon a time, there was a villager who had a beautiful daughter 
and a loyal and diligent servant. The young servant fell in love with the 
daughter, hoping to marry her, since the villager had promised that “He 
would marry his daughter to a hardworking man.” However, he later 
changed his mind and instead intended his daughter to marry the wealth- 
iest man in the village. The young servant then suggested to the father that 
as bamboo chopsticks were to be used at the wedding banquet, anyone 
who could And the bamboos whose stems had exactly one hundred septa 
should marry her. The villager agreed. Thanks to some magic power, the 
young man found or made the bamboos with exactly one hundred septa 
and brought them back. As a result, he succeeded in fulfilling his dream of 
marrying the villager’s daughter.^ 

Among the Japanese, chopsticks are hailed as “sticks for one’s life,” or 
seimei no tsue, literarily supporting one’s life from the beginning to the 
end. As such, chopsticks are used as a helpful marker to celebrate an 

Ibid., 87-99. 

Mukai 6c Hashimoto, Hashi, 249-250. This story also in a way confirms that in Vietnam, 
chopsticks are quite commonly made of bamboo as they are in China. 

A pair inseparable: chopsticks as gift, metaphor and symbol 125 

important day in life. For example, after a child is born, usually on the 
hundredth day but it could be as early as the seventh or as late as the 
hundred and twentieth day, a ceremony is held at which an adult would 
feed the child a bowl of rice with a pair of chopsticks, usually made of 
unpainted willow tree wood. The chopsticks used at the ceremony are 
called okuizomebashi and the ceremony itself is named ohashizomeish- 
ikid° Of course, at such a young age, a child is unable to use chopsticks. 
The purpose of the ceremony is to introduce the utensil to him/her, since 
they are the “sticks for life,” with the wish that the child lead an easy, or 
hunger-free, life. What is also common is to present special chopsticks to 
elders on important birthdays to wish for and celebrate their long life. 
These chopsticks acquire names like enmeibashi (extend-life chopsticks), 
enjubashi (prolong-life chopsticks), chojubashi (long-life chopsticks) and 
fukujubashi (happy-life chopsticks). They are given to an elder often on 
his/her sixty-first, seventieth, seventy-seventh, eighty-eighth or ninety- 
ninth birthday.” 

Everyone celebrates the New Year in Japan, which makes the month 
of January, or shogatsu lE.^, the most important holiday season. Before 
the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the Japanese used a lunar calendar so 
the shogatsu fell between late January and early February. Now that the 
Western calendar has been adopted in Japan, the New Year occurs at the 
same time as in the Western world. However, the customs in celebrating 
the New Year retain elements from the past. For instance, new chopsticks 
are required to eat the meals on New Year’s day, customarily made of 
unpainted willow tree wood. Called oiwaibashi (celebratory or festive 
chopsticks), these chopsticks take the shape of ryokuchibashi (lit. two- 
ended chopsticks), with a thicker, or rounder, body and two slimmer and 
pointed ends (Plate 22). The two-ended chopsticks are required because 
they enable the Japanese to share food with kami around them - one end of 
the chopsticks is for the people to eat and the other for kamid^ This shinjin 
kyoshoku (kami and people sharing food together) extends a Shinto belief. 
That the Japanese use toribashi, or serving/community chopsticks, to 
distribute food also originated at Shinto ceremonies. After offering foods 
to kami, the priest usually employs a pair of serving chopsticks to serve the 
foods to the participants.^^ 

Oiwaibashi are mostly made of unpainted whitewood because of Shinto 
and Buddhist influences. While Shintoism prizes direct communication 

Isshiki,, Hashi no Bunkashi, Ibid., 6o. Ibid., 57-61. 

Ibid., 134-135. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

between the human world and the natural world, the Buddhist tenets 
emphasize simplicity in life. Also, most of the oiwaibashi are made of 
willow tree wood, for if one follows the lunar calendar, the New Year 
begins in early spring; by then willow trees have already budded, usually 
earlier than other trees. Using their wood thus celebrates the vitality of 
life.^"^ The round body of the ryokuchibashi chopsticks carries a special 
meaning for one’s wish for the New Year: it portends, as well as promises, 
the arrival of a lush, fertile and abundant year.^^ As celebratory chop- 
sticks, oiwaibashi are also used on other holidays, such as the Coming of 
Age Day and Children’s Day. As such, celebratory chopsticks are also 
called “ceremonial chopsticks,” or harenohashi, as opposed to “daily 
chopsticks,” or kenohashi. Made of naked wood, celebratory or ceremo- 
nial chopsticks are usually purchased anew for the occasion and discarded 
afterwards because, according to Shinto belief, once placed in the mouth, 
these unpainted wooden chopsticks carry one’s spirit, which cannot be 
washed off; throwing them away forges a certain communication between 
human and kamid'^ By contrast, daily chopsticks are painted with lacquer 
for durability and, with one pointed end, are not used to share food with 
kami. And nowadays, most daily chopsticks are made of plastic, a material 
that has no sacred status in Shintoism. 

Pronounced hashi, the Japanese word for chopsticks is a homonym of 
“bridge.” On life’s important junctures, chopsticks have indeed played 
such a role for the Japanese, enabling them to establish spiritual connec- 
tions between one and another, between the realm of humans and the 
realm of kami, between the living and the dead and between this world and 
the netherworld. When someone travels away from home, such as when a 
soldier leaves for a war, for instance, other family members would still 
prepare and serve food for the traveler when they eat a meal, together with 
the person’s chopsticks. Termed kagezen, this meal expresses their wish for 
the traveler’s safety and wellbeing. As explained above, since the traveler’s 
chopsticks retain his/her spirit, the family believes that their wishes can be 
transmitted to the traveler by this “bridge.” In a different way, this belief 
that after use one’s chopsticks contain one’s spirit also led to the Japanese 
fondness for disposable chopsticks, a subject to be discussed in the next 

Mukai & Hashimoto, Hashi, 193. Isshiki, Hashi no Bunkashi, 60-61. 

Wilson, Consider the Fork, 200. In olden times when the Japanese used chopsticks to eat meals 
outside, once finished, they would break the chopsticks in half before throwing them away, lest 
their spirit be attached to the chopsticks. Also see Isshiki, Hashi no Bunkashi, 11-15. 

Isshiki, Hashi no Bunkashi, 67-68. 

A pair inseparable: chopsticks as gift, metaphor and symbol izy 

The action of forming some communication between this world and 
the netherworld is referred to in Japanese as hashiivatashi (lit. bridge- 
crossing). Thus, a pair of chopsticks is an important must-have object at 
a funeral, completing its last mission to send the person to the other world. 
Just like the ceremony where a newborn is fed by an adult with a pair of 
chopsticks, a dying person, too, is offered a meal, with rice in his/her 
favorite bowl and a pair of chopsticks standing in it. Since the meal is 
placed next to the person’s pillow, it is called the “pillow meal” (makur- 
ameshi) and the chopsticks are tatebashi, as they stand vertically in the 
bowl. After serving the last meal to the deceased, chopsticks have one more 
role to play in the traditional Japanese funeral, which is the act of 
hashiivatashi mentioned above. Given the Buddhist influence, it has been 
a well-established practice for the Japanese to cremate the dead. After the 
cremation, family members would each hold a pair of chopsticks to pick up 
a bone from the ashes and pass it from one to another. This act was 
intended to build a spiritual tie between them and the deceased, or between 
the living and the underworld. Indeed, for the Japanese, as the aphorism 
goes, “one’s life begins with [the use of] chopsticks, it also ends with 

The ways chopsticks are used on those occasions also influenced chop- 
sticks etiquette in Japan. In performing hashiivatashi, one holds an item 
with one’s chopsticks and passes it on to another pair of chopsticks. But to 
do the same at a dining table would be frowned upon. As mentioned in the 
previous chapter, this act is called utsuribashi, one of the chopsticks-use 
taboos for the Japanese. As one eats, food items should be delivered either 
to a plate or directly to the mouth, never to another pair of chopsticks in 
Japan. Also mentioned in the previous chapter, to leave a pair of chopsticks 
standing vertically in a rice bowl is universally forbidden across the chop- 
sticks cultural sphere. For the Japanese, one only does this when offering 
the grain to the dying or dead person. Similarly, many Chinese commun- 
ities dislike having chopsticks stand vertically in bowls because it resembles 
incense-burning, a Buddhist ritual to mourn the dead. 

In the Korean Peninsula, instead of chopsticks, spoons appear more 
frequently in folklore, reflecting dining preferences. For example, a fable 
called “Mysterious Snake” describes a nice girl from a wealthy (mer- 
chant?) family who fed food to a snake with a spoon. The snake was 
later killed, but her kindness and her gesture to an animal perceived as 
malicious was well rewarded - she was later married to a yangban and the 


Ibid., 61-65. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

couple lived happily ever after Interestingly, however, if push comes to 
shove, Koreans also think that chopsticks are more basic than the spoon 
for eating. A folk legend from Baekje, Korea, known as “The Set of Three 
Utensils,” is illustrative. The tale goes that after their father’s death, the 
elder brother took all the inheritance, forcing his younger brother to leave 
home. The younger brother received three basic utensils from a Buddhist 
monk, which consisted of an eating mat, a bowl made of a dried gourd and 
a pair of chopsticks. After hiking down the mountain, it turned dark and 
the young man found no shelter or food. So he unfolded the mat. All of a 
sudden, a palace with many luxurious rooms appeared. Next he scooped 
the gourd bowl, and all kinds of delicious foods poured out. He lastly 
tapped the pair of chopsticks and several beautiful women came to him. 
In other words, these three items - a mat, a bowl and a pair of chopsticks - 
are the daily necessities for a Korean in Baekje. 

In Vietnam where chopsticks had been adopted as an eating tool earlier 
than they were in Baekje, Korea, the folklore tradition also depicts the 
utensil’s importance in life. A folktale called “Real Son vs. Adopted Son” is 
one, which was also about a family dispute over inheritance. A man named 
Ch’ep, meaning “carp fish,” had both an adopted son and a biological son. 
After he died, his wife complained that the adopted son, who was older, 
took all the family money, leaving nothing for his younger brother. When a 
judge was assigned to handle the dispute, he observed how the brothers ate 
their meals. While chopsticks were given to both of them, the biological 
son used them properly whereas the adopted son did not use them - 
he instead used his fingers to put food in his mouth. At dinner, the judge 
gave them rice and a carp fish dish. The adopted son ate the fish and the rice 
whereas the biological son did not touch the fish. When asked why, he 
answered: “Since my father’s name means carp fish, I don’t feel like eating 
it [out of my respect for my father] . ” The two brothers’ different behaviors, 
especially their divergent dining manners, helped the judge to see that the 
biological son was indeed wronged by his brother, or the adopted son.^‘ In 
a word, using chopsticks to eat food became a way for the Vietnamese to 
see whether or not one had a proper upbringing. 

Since chopsticks use assumes such significance in life, the utensil has 
become associated with myriad meanings on different occasions. Like 

Mukai & Hashimoto, Hashi, 247. According to the Confucian social order, merchants 
were ranked lowest in the four-class social structure, below the literati, or the yangban in 
the Korean case, peasants and artisans. So for a girl from a rich merchant family to marry a 
yangban was considered good fortune for her at the time. 

Ibid., 246. Ibid., 248-249. 


A pair inseparable: chopsticks as gift, metaphor and symbol 129 

the Japanese, for example, the Zhuang people in China celebrate a child’s 
birthday with chopsticks, such as when s/he is one year old. Longer than 
the usual kind, the utensil is used by the child’s parents to feed a bowl of 
long noodles to the birthday child. The long noodles and the long chop- 
sticks extend their wish for the child’s long life in the years to come.’^^ 
Using longer chopsticks to deliver birthday food is particular to this case. 
But eating noodles on a birthday is fairly common, practiced almost every- 
where in China and beyond. It also has a long history, and was already 
quite common during the Tang dynasty.^^ A long life means good fortune. 
Some fortune-tellers in traditional China thus used chopsticks as a tool 
for prediction. Beginning as early as the tenth century, this practice con- 
tinued to gain popularity, fueling the belief in chopsticks’ magic and mystic 
power. By the late nineteenth century, it had become a religious cult for 
some Chinese as they regularly worshipped and prayed to the “chopsticks 
spirit” or “chopsticks god” - kuaizi shen - for good fortune.^"* 

It is unknown if chopsticks, too, were used in fortune-telling in Japan. 
But there is a well-known legend about why festive chopsticks need to 
take the shape of ryokuchibashi with thicker, rounder bodies and two 
tapered ends. It involves the death of a short-lived shogun named Ashikaga 
Yoshikatsu (1434-1443). Ashikaga Yoshikatsu became the shogun at a 
young age in 1441, after his father, Ashikaga Yoshinori (1394-1441), was 
murdered by one of his lieutenants. Several months later, either in the 
first month or the fifth month of the lunar calendar, the young shogun 
entertained his ministers with a banquet. When he was eating a pancake, 
his chopsticks suddenly broke in half. Then in the fall, he unexpectedly fell 
from his horse on an excursion and died ten days later. Ashikaga 
Yoshikatsu was succeeded by his brother Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1435- 
1490) who, in order to prevent the same misfortune from befalling anyone 
else, made chopsticks that had thicker, stronger bodies so they would not 
break easily. 

In the history of China, no similar cases are found where broken chop- 
sticks portended an untimely death. But there are instances in which one 
breaks a pair of chopsticks in order to manifest one’s determination. 
According to a Tang history. Emperor Xuanzong (r. 847-859) once ordered 
his daughter. Princess Yongfu, to marry someone. But the Princess was 
utterly unhappy with the order. While eating with the Emperor, she broke 

Liu, Zhongguo zhu wenhuashi, zS^. 'Wang,Tangdai yinshi, 6. 

Liu, Zhongguo zhu wenhuashi, 230. 

Mukai 6c Hashimoto, Hashi, 193; Isshiki, Hashi no Bunkashi, 18. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

her chopsticks and spoon to protest. Her act, which implied that she would 
kill herself if forced, changed her father’s mind. The Emperor later married 
off another of his daughters in place of Princess Yongfu.^^ To what extent 
chopsticks represent, symbolically and spiritually, life itself certainly varies 
from people to people. But by and large, across Asia it is regarded as 
ominous if an accident happens to the utensil. Indeed, even if someone 
fails to hold chopsticks properly or carefully, causing them to drop on the 
floor, it could also be considered inauspicious. To some, this might bode ill 
for the person’s future, especially if this occurs at an important juncture in 
life. In imperial China, if a candidate en route to the civil service examina- 
tion, for instance, accidentally dropped a pair of chopsticks while eating his 
food, it would be seen as unlucky, causing him, as well as others, to think 
that he would fail the upcoming examination.^^ 

If dropping chopsticks was an omen for failing exams, raising chop- 
sticks had the opposite meaning. In Tang China, poetry writing was 
particularly popular among members of the literati. Seeing an old friend 
whom he had known since he was a child, who was en route to the imperial 
examination, Liu Yuxi (772-842), a famous Tang poet, wrote a poem in 
which he sang: 

At your birth when they first hung out the bow, 

I was the most honored guest at the birthday feast. 

Wielding my chopsticks I ate boiled noodles, 

And composed a congratulatory poem on a heavenly unicorn. 

Here Liu wished that by raising his chopsticks, he could help the young 
man to launch, through passing the examination, a high-flying career, like 
the Heavenly Unicorn. Lew had the luck to be blessed by Liu Yuxi in a 
poem. But raising chopsticks at a dining table has been commonly prac- 
ticed among chopsticks users as a good gesture. It is usually seen when a 
host invites the guests to eat the food. Among the Japanese, it is polite for 
anyone, before eating his/her food, to first say to the others, be they family 
members or friends and guests, “itadakimasu,” which literarily means 
“I now accept it,” or “I shall start eating.” When saying it, one usually 

Ouyang Xiu, Xin Tangshu (New Tang history) - “Yu Zhining, Xiu Lie, Ao Zong, Pang 
Yan” (Biographies of Yu Zhining, Xiu Lie, Ao Zong and Bang Yan), HDWZK, 4010. 
One reason that such an incident (dropping chopsticks on the floor) is taken as bad luck 
is that "to fall on the floor” (luodi ^iik) is the homonym of "to fail the examination” 
{luodi in Chinese; the second characters in the two phrases are pronounced exactly 
the same. 

Translation is from David R. Knechtges, "A Literary Feast: Food in Early Chinese 
Literature,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, 106:1, 61. 

A pair inseparable: chopsticks as gift, metaphor and symbol 13 1 

also raises one’s chopsticks horizontally with both hands and bows slightly. 
Although the gesture perhaps started in Buddhist temples (mentioned 
in Chapter 4), the sentence seems more Shintoistic (Buddhism and Shintoism 
did blend and coalesce in their practices). Since in traditional Shinto beliefs kami 
is omnipresent, the sentence denotes that the eater receives, or accepts, food 
from kami - s/he is asking permission from the deity to begin eating the food. 

While offering food to ancestors and spirits is common among the 
Chinese, they do not traditionally partake in, nor practice, the idea that 
humans share food simultaneously with supernatural beings. But in offering 
the food to the spirits, utensils are always provided, on the assumption that 
the spirits also need them to eat. This notion was/is commonly practiced 
among various peoples in China. For example, when offering food and 
drinks to spirits and ancestors, the Manchus always placed a pair of chop- 
sticks and a spoon either on top of or next to the bowls. And this custom had 
begun before the Manchus entered China proper in the mid-seventeenth 
century, or before their extensive exposure to Han Chinese customs. After 
the offering, eating began - there was no such custom that one needed to 
express acceptance of the food from deities among various peoples in China. 

However, the Chinese have attached certain meanings to the act of 
wielding chopsticks, or juzhu. While seemingly a natural act - one has to 
first lift chopsticks from the table before moving them to the dishes to clasp 
food - it could at times become an important gesture with both intended and 
unintended consequences. Examples of this abound, past and present, 
shown in historical texts and literary tropes. While he writes in his poem 
that he wielded his chopsticks to send his best wishes to his friend, Liu Yuxi 
was not the first to coin the phrase. An earlier usage of the term was found in 
one of the histories written by Li Yanshou, the Tang historian. When 
describing the history of the Southern Liang dynasty (502-557), Li tells a 
story about Lii Sengzhen, a model and modest official. One of the examples 
showing his modesty was that, per Li’s record, Lii never raised his chopsticks 
from the table and ate the food at imperial dinners with the emperor. 

See Zhen Jun, Tianzhi ouwen (Legends of the heavenly realm) (Beijing: Beijing guji 
chubanshe, 1982), 22-25. Though the text was written in the late nineteenth century, 
Zhen (1837-1920), a learned Manchu, recorded many traditional customs of his people in 
earlier centuries. 

According to the historical text, Lii only used chopsticks to eat a dessert offered by the 
emperor while he was a bit drunk. His unusual behavior cracked up the emperor. See Li 
Yanshou, “Biography of Lii Sengzhen,” in Nanshi (History of the southern dynasties) - 
"Lii Sengzhen” (Biography of Lii Sengzhen), HDWZK, 1396. A search in ZJGK finds that 
the phrase juzhu appeared 561 times in various texts from the Tang to the Qing periods. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

Lii Sengzhen’s behavior is portrayed as exceptional because few can resist 
food, especially when it is bestowed by the imperial court. 

Over time, what Lii Sengzhen did became exemplary of appropriate 
table manners as well as of good moral character. Gao Chu (1574-1655) 
was a Ming scholar-official known for his sympathy toward the poor. 
When he witnessed a famine, seeing dead bodies on the road, he wrote: 
“Who could wield his chopsticks [and eat the food] and not cry to Heaven, 
yet Heaven was so high, hardly hearing [the cry].”^^ Overcome by his 
sorrow, Gao was unable to hold up his chopsticks for food - a figurative 
description underscoring his compassion and humanity. Yet in real life, 
whether and how one should wield one’s chopsticks in front of food could 
be a serious matter. For example, it is expected in China that when invited 
to a meal, a polite guest would not be the first one to grab the chopsticks 
and dig into the food; it is better to wait until the host or the senior first puts 
his/her hand on the chopsticks. To demonstrate hospitality, conversely, a 
host needs to raise his/her chopsticks to gesture and urge, sometimes 
repeatedly, others to eat. This tradition is also observable in other cultures. 
When eating at home, for example, it is customary that a senior first apply 
his/her chopsticks and start eating before anyone else does. According to a 
Ming text, wielding one’s chopsticks without invitation was a disorderly 
social behavior during that era. It could become even worse if the person 
also put down the chopsticks and left the table after gulping down his food 
while others were still working on theirs.^^ 

If a minister could display his modesty by not touching his chopsticks 
in front of food, then an emperor could also show his humility towards, 
or bestow his kindheartedness onto, his counselor by holding chopsticks 
for him. One such case happened in the fifth century during the Northern 
Wei dynasty (386-557), a regime of the Xianbei people who invaded and 
unified North China after the Han. Cui Hao (38i?-45o), a brilliant 
strategist credited with the success, received such treatment from 
Emperor Taiwu (r. 4Z4-452), the dynasty’s third ruler. As they were 
quite close, historical records suggest, the Emperor often called on Cui 
at his residence, sometimes during his mealtime. Instead of asking Cui to 
stop eating, the Emperor often picked up the chopsticks and gave them to 
Cui, encouraging him to finish the meal. The Emperor’s unusual gesture 
suggested his eagerness for Cui’s advice and his openhandedness toward 

Gao Chu, Jingshan’an ji, ZJGK, 282. 

This was referred to as “shiqujiu” (lit. lost manners), see Lu Ji, Gujin shuohai (Sea of 
stories of the past and present), in ZJGK, 490-491. 

A pair inseparable: chopsticks as gift, metaphor and symbol 133 

Cui, for few emperors in China would act the same way in treating a 
minister. However, by accepting the Emperor’s exceptional graciousness, 
Cui Hao, in stark contrast to Lii Sengzhen’s prudence, also unveiled his 
vanity. And he paid a hefty price in the end; implicated falsely in a 
conspiracy, Cui was later put to death by the Emperor. 

Besides juzhu, or to raise, hold and wield chopsticks for food, Chinese 
authors also wrote stories involving touzhu, or dropping and tossing 
chopsticks, suggesting such a practice had a long history. As mentioned 
in Chapter 2, together with the spoon, chopsticks made an early appear- 
ance in Chen Shou’s History of the Three Kingdoms. Startled by Cao Cao’s 
remarks, Liu Bei dropped both his spoon and chopsticks. Since then, 
touzhu has become a stock phrase to help describe someone’s fear, shock 
and/or surprise. In the wake of the Tang dynasty’s fall in the tenth century, 
several military strongmen vied for control of China proper. Gao Jixing 
( 8 5 8-9 2,9 ), an ambitious general who rose to power through the ranks, was 
one of them. While collaborating with the Late Tang dynasty (923-937), 
Gao planned to invade Sichuan but was unsure if it was the right move. 
While he hesitated, another army quickly took Sichuan. The news came 
when Gao was just about to eat his meal. Upon hearing it, Gao “dropped 
his spoon and chopsticks,” as one historical text puts it, regretting his 
earlier indecision. In the end, Gao only managed to establish a small 
kingdom, without ever seizing Sichuan. 

One could drop one’s utensils out of shock or fear, one could also inten- 
tionally toss or put down one’s chopsticks to express certain feelings - 
happiness, unhappiness or mixed emotions. The chopstick-tossing custom 
at wedding ceremonies is an illustration of this; the bride who tosses her 
chopsticks on the wedding day might want to express at once her sadness for 
leaving her parents behind and her happiness at beginning a new life. 
As losing one’s chopsticks is generally regarded as inauspicious, even fore- 
boding, in literary tropes, touzhu is often depicted as an unusual and 
unnatural act, associated with anxiety, frustration and angst. That is. 

Sima Guang, Zizhi tongjian (A comprehensive mirror of aid in government) - “Cui Hao” 
(Biography of Cui Hao), HDWZK, 1330. 

The case that Gao Jixing dropped his spoon and chopsticks upon hearing about Sichuan is 
recorded in the Shiguo chunqiu {Spring and autumn annals of the ten kingdoms), a 
historicaltextby WuShichen, in/j<i2« i,ZJGK, 741. “Dropping utensils” seems a standard 
usage in describing one’s surprise and other high emotions. One such usage is found in 
Zhang Tingyu, Mingshi (Ming history) - “Wen Tiren” (Biography of Wen Tiren). It 
records that after Wen, a manipulating Grand Secretariat, lost the trust of the emperor 
and was dismissed from his position, “Wen, who was just about to eat, dropped his spoon 
and chopsticks.” HDWZK, 7936. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

touzhu connotes that someone deliberately and forcefully puts down the 
chopsticks to express a strong emotion. The History of the [Liu] Song 
dynasty (Songshu), written by Shen Yue (441-5 13 ), a historian-cum-writer, 
offers an early example. The dynasty was ruled by several despotic rulers 
and plagued with internecine warfare. One such disturbance occurred in 
476 when Prince Liu Jingsu (452-476) was involved in an attempt to 
challenge the reigning emperor, a teenage boy with an erratic and violent 
temper. But the challenge failed and Liu was killed in the fight. After his 
death, one of his associates petitioned the court, then under a new emperor, 
in defense of Liu’s political loyalty. The petitioner cited an instance to show 
that Liu had been a filial son to his mother: whenever he found his mother 
was not eating, he would “instantly put down his chopsticks and stop eating 
too.” Then the petitioner asked: “How could such a filial son be disloyal to 
the government?” In other words, a person who respected order and family 
hierarchy at home would not have committed any treasonous act against the 
government. Putting down the chopsticks was used to strengthen the 

In later texts, touzhu is employed not only to characterize one’s love for 
a family elder, but also to express compassion for others. The “Biography 
of Wu Yinzhi” in the History of the fin Dynasty (Jinshu), an official history 
which appeared about a century later than Shen Yue’s history, describes 
the early life of Wu Yinzhi (?-4i4), a highly respected official of that 
period, as follows: 

When Wu Yinzhi was young, he lost his parents. As he had been quite close to 
his mother, Wu often sobbed when he thought of her. Overhearing his crying, 
Wu’s neighbor, Mrs. Han, a kind lady, put down her chopsticks, quit eating and 
wept tears. She would then tell her son, Han Kangbo, who was then the Director 
of Protocols in the government, that “When you have a chance, you should 
promote a person like Wu.” Several years later, Han became the Minister of 
Personnel. He followed his mother’s advice and recruited Wu into the govern- 
ment [italics added]. 

Instead of just stating that Mrs. Han stopped eating, the text includes the 
action of touzhu - her putting down the chopsticks - to emphasize how 
strongly she sympathized with Wu Yinzhi’s loss. 

Shen Yue, Songshu (History of the [Liu] Song dynasty) - “Jianping Xuanjianwang Hong, 
zi Jingsu” {Biographies of Prince Xuanjian of Liu Hong and his son Liu Jingsu), HDWZK, 
1864. Touzhu appears a total of 409 times in various texts in ZJGK. 

Fang Xuanling, Jinshu (History of the Jin dynasty) - “Wu Yinzhi” (Biography of Wu 
Yinzhi), HDWZK, 2341. 

A pair inseparable: chopsticks as gift, metaphor and symbol 135 

Li Bai (701-76Z), China’s most celebrated poet, also used touzhu to 
convey and emphasize his sadness. In a well-known poem, “Difficult 
Departure” (Xinglu nan), Li describes how sad he felt in bidding farewell 
to his friends when he decided to leave Chang’an, the capital of the Tang 
dynasty where he had stayed for a brief period. The poem begins with a 
depiction of the extravagant farewell party his friends threw for him - 
delicious foods on jade plates and boundless wine in golden cups. Then 
Li expresses his emotion in these words: “I stopped drinking the wine 
and tossed down my chopsticks because I had no appetite. I drew out my 
sword, looking around, my mind was utterly absent.” Here again, the 
phrase “putting down the chopsticks” is employed to accentuate Li Bai’s 
sorrow at leaving behind his friends. 

Yet the acts involving chopsticks do not have to be associated with 
distress or angst. Rather, chopsticks can also help celebrate a happy 
occasion. For such a purpose, the phrase jizhu was coined, meaning “to 
strike the chopsticks” onto an object, be it a plate or a table. The purpose of 
jizhu is to make some sound, or even music if the person is so trained. Yet 
to do that is unusual, for etiquette forbids one to make noise with chop- 
sticks. So jizhu only happens when one is overwhelmed with emotions, or 
in ecstasy. Bai Juyi, a Tang poet, depicts such an occurrence in his poem. 
When he met Liu Yuxi in 826, Bai described their meeting as follows: 
“When I was drinking, you raised your cup and poured me more wine; 
when you were singing, I struck my chopsticks on the plates to sound the 
beat.” The scene seems indeed rather joyful: the two men, possibly half 
drunk, sang and chatted over drinks to celebrate their reunion. It was so 
delightful for them because their gathering was unexpected. Despite their 
successes as accomplished poets, they were both demoted and forced out of 
the Tang capital - then they ran into each other on the road!^'^ 

Bai Juyi tapped his chopsticks on the plates spontaneously. But such an 
act is also depicted in other Tang poems, giving the impression that it was 
probably more common than one would think. Was there a custom in that 
period that people struck chopsticks at parties to sound the beat while they 
were singing? That jizhu often occurred with singing in Tang poems seems 
to suggest this.^^ In fact, records show that this phenomenon had occurred 
in earlier periods. Wang Chong (27-97? ce), a Han scholar, wrote that 
someone of his time used chopsticks to strike bronze bells and make music, 

Li Bai, nan, ZJGK, 17. Cited m\A\x, Zhongguo zhu wenhuashi, 

Jizhu first appeared in Tang texts and was found a total of thirty-seven times in the texts in 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

which to him seemed odd because a mallet would be a better instrument."^” 
But in the post-Han period, after trapezoidal dulcimers were introduced 
to China from Central Asia, Chinese musicians played on them with 
thin bamboo sticks, or chopsticks. It was said that Liu Yun (465-517), a 
musician and poet in the Southern Liang dynasty, could play a zither with 
either his chopsticks or his brush pen (usually made of the same material) 
to entertain his audience. Before him, the Chinese zither, or qin (stringed 
instrument), which is quite similar to a trapezoidal dulcimer, had been 
traditionally played with the fingers. 

The people in the Tang struck plates and bowls with chopsticks to make 
music because during the period most of the food utensils were made of 
ceramic and even porcelain, no longer bronze as in the Han and earlier 
periods. Thus legend has it that Wan Baochang (P-595), an indentured 
musician at the Sui dynasty court, performed this way at imperial dinners. 
On one occasion, someone asked Wan about music when he was just 
about to eat. For want of proper instruments. Wan instead used the chop- 
sticks he was eating with to strike the bowls of various sizes, hitting all 
the notes for his explanation. His musicality impressed many, including 
the emperor; at the latter’s invitation. Wan composed court music, though 
his status remained unchanged throughout his life. Then during the ninth 
century, a court musician named Guo Daoyuan demonstrated his virtu- 
osity by tapping, again with a pair of chopsticks, various types of porcelain 
vessels that contained different levels of water to make beautiful music. 
Obviously, the difference in size and quality of the vessels, as well as the 
different levels of water in them, helped Guo to create the musical notes. 
He also mastered the skill of striking those vessels with chopsticks to create 
different musical tones as he intended. 

Besides describing how chopsticks were used on various occasions, 
historians, poets and scholars also commented on the varieties of chop- 
sticks and assigned different values and meanings to them. The earliest and 
perhaps the most well-known example, of course, is Han Feizi’s criticism 
of King Zhou’s use of ivory chopsticks. As the case became well known, 
ivory chopsticks came to be associated with a profligate and decadent lifestyle 
in almost all textual references. But in real life, ironically, probably because 
of the association, the rich and well born coveted ivory chopsticks, and 

Wang, Lunheng- “Ganxu” (Ficticious influences), 5, ZJGK, 48. 

Li, Nanshi - “Liu Yun zhuan” (Biography of Liu Yun), HDWZK, 988. 

Li Yanshou, Beishi (History of the northern dynasties) - “Yishu xia” (Arts II), HDWZK, 
2982. The case of Guo Daoyuan is in Liu, Zhongguo zhu wenhuashi, 197. 

A pair inseparable: chopsticks as gift, metaphor and symbol 137 

other ivory artifacts in general, as a way to show off their status, success and 
wealth. Compared with other varieties, ivory chopsticks are more fragile, and 
become cracked and stained rather easily if used with less care. Discoloring 
also takes place even if one does not use them on a daily basis. All this probably 
explains why ivory chopsticks were not well received from their first appear- 
ance in traditional Asia. 

Gold chopsticks are also delicate. In fact, pure gold chopsticks are 
extremely rare because they are hard to make and, once made, they are as 
impractical and unusable as ivory chopsticks. However, it seems that gold 
chopsticks have a much better image, as shown in the following story. 
During the Tang dynasty, per the historical record. Emperor Xuanzong 
(r. 712-756) gave a pair of gold chopsticks to Song Jing (663-737), his 
then prime minister, at a banquet. Known for his high integrity. Song was at 
first quite reluctant to receive such an expensive gift because he did not know 
what the Emperor’s intention was. Seeing his hesitation, the Emperor 
explained: “I give you the pair of chopsticks not because they are made of 
gold, but because they are as straight as you are [in giving me advice].” Song 
then thanked the Emperor and accepted the chopsticks. As one of the first 
instances of gold chopsticks recorded in history. Song Jing’s earning of a 
gold pair of chopsticks was recited time and again in later texts."^^ As such, in 
contrast to ivory chopsticks, gold chopsticks were endowed with a positive 
moral connotation, associated with Song Jing’s upright and straightforward 
character."^'* To follow the Tang example, imperial families of later dynasties 
collected gold chopsticks and occasionally also gave them as gifts to reward 
and commend loyal and worthy ministers. Two pairs of gold chopsticks, for 
example, were found among numerous pairs of gold-plated and silver chop- 
sticks in Yan Song’s (1480-1567) collection. Once a highly trusted Ming 
official, Yan obtained the two pairs of gold chopsticks from the imperial 
family. Zhang Juzheng (1525-1582), another powerful figure in the Ming 
government, also received a pair of gold chopsticks from the Grand Empress 
for his dedicated service."^^ 

Wang Renyu, Kaiyuan tianbao yishi {An unofficial history of Emperor Xuanzong’s reign), 
available in ZJGK. From then on, jinzhu appeared 129 times in various texts in ZJGK, 
mostly recitations of Song Jing’s story. 

Many Chinese writers and poets associated gold chopsticks with moral uprightness, 
shown in the texts in ZJGK. Korean scholars also did the same in their writings, seen in 
the texts in 

Few gold chopsticks have been unearthed in China yet the Palace Museum in Beijing 
has collected several pairs of gold and silver chopsticks, purchased by the imperial 
families of the Ming and Qing dynasties. See Liu, Zhongguo zhu wenhuashi, 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

Besides ivory and gold, other expensive materials are also used to make 
chopsticks. Some indeed are as rare and valuable as ivory, such as rhinoc- 
eros horn, deer antler and ebony, whereas others are expensive because 
they are mostly imports, such as certain wood like mahogany and narra 
(Malay padauk), which are native to Vietnam, Thailand and other parts of 
Southeast Asia and less seen in East Asia. Interestingly, few of these prized 
chopsticks seem to have the same immoral association as do ivory chop- 
sticks. Of these valued varieties, silver chopsticks are relatively more 
affordable, as the metal is more common and more malleable than other 
metals. In fact, some gold chopsticks mentioned in historical texts were 
more likely made of a gold-silver alloy. Although susceptible to discolor- 
ing, silver chopsticks are also hardy and durable, hence popular as both 
a valuable collectible and a convenient utensil. As noted previously, 
archaeological digs have found many silver chopsticks in China and 
Korea, attesting to their enduring popularity over the ages. Surprisingly, 
perhaps because they are relatively common, mentions of silver chopsticks 
are not as frequent as those of their gold and ivory counterparts in Chinese 
texts. One of the earliest cases is in the Famous Sites on the West Lake 
(Xihu fansheng lu), an anonymous text likely from the thirteenth century. 
It records that up-market restaurants in Lin’an, the capital of the Southern 
Song dynasty (1127-1279), prepared food with silver utensils - the 
text mentions it perhaps because it was a bit unusual."*'’ But apparently 
people did use silver chopsticks as an eating tool. In a poem, Tang Xianzu 
(1550-1616), a prominent playwright of the Ming, describes a sumptu- 
ous gala he attended, sighing: “It would not be hard for anyone to get 
drunk [when foods] were carried by silver chopsticks and gold 
spoons.””*’ Silver chopsticks, paired with gold spoons, are metaphors 
for a comfortable, if also luxurious, life. But again, there is no outright 
moral condemnation. 

Besides the precious chopsticks mentioned above, there is another 
valued material of which chopsticks have been made throughout the 

428-429. Yan Song’s collection is described by Liu Zhiqin in her WanMing shilun 
(Essays on Late Ming history) (Nanchang: Jiangxi gaoxiao chubanshe, 2004), 2.70. 
The mention of Zhang Juzheng’s gold chopsticks is in Fu Weilin, Mingshu (Ming 
history), ZJGK, 1751. 

See Meng Yuanlao et ah, Xihu fansheng lu (Beijing: Zhongguo shangye chubanshe, 
1982), 17. Michael Freeman also noted that high-class restaurants in the Song sup- 
plied silver utensils to their customers. See his chapter, “Sung,” in Food in Chinese 
Culture, 153. 

Tang Xianzu, “Yebo jinchi” (A night at Jinchi), Yumingtang quanji (Complete works of 
the Yuming Hall), ZJGK, 267. 

A pair inseparable: chopsticks as gift, metaphor and symbol 139 

ages, which is jade. From time immemorial, the Chinese, and to a certain 
degree Koreans too, have developed a fascination with jade. As early as the 
Paleolithic Age, (nephrite) jade was already being made into various objects 
for both utilitarian and ceremonial purposes, as shown in archaeological 
finds in China. Over time, jade became the “imperial gem” for the Chinese; 
as ritual objects, jade artifacts (vessels, ornaments, etc.) were indispensable 
in religious ceremonies at the state level. In traditional China, men and 
women also habitually wore jade as personal adornments, whereas skilled 
artisans crafted jade into objets d’art, which became collectibles for the rich. 
In some instances, the status of a piece of high-quality jade can exceed that of 
gold and silver in China. Naturally, the Chinese also made jade chopsticks. 
But once formed into thin sticks, they are easily breakable, hence few real 
examples of jade chopsticks have surfaced at historical sites. 

In texts, however, jade chopsticks have made frequent appearances. The 
History of the Southern Qi Dynasty (NanQishu), authored by Xiao Zixian 
(487-537), provides an early example. In rhapsodic style, Xiao writes 
about jade chopsticks as follows: 

As far as I could see, emperors and kings rose on simple and modest lifestyles while 
falling on debauchery and profligacy. Having followed good examples from the 
past, you, our Majesty, reside in a wooden room and sleep on a whitewood bed. 
When you eat, you use pottery utensils and gourd bowls. Indeed, when broken, 
jade hairpins and chopsticks appear no different from the dirt and when on fire, fur 
and silk clothes are as flammable as the grass."*** 

Here, the fragility of jade chopsticks becomes a metaphorical case for 
praising as well as for remonstrating with the emperor to exhibit the 
qualities of exemplary morality. 

Like ivory chopsticks, jade chopsticks are delicate, less useful and less 
usable in real life. But this hardly stops literary writers from using them as 
allegories in their works. Around the time when Xiao Zixian mentioned 
them in his history, yuzhu, or “jade chopsticks,” appeared recurrently in 
literary texts, especially from the Tang. In fact, the term seems to have a 
much larger appeal than the references to gold or silver chopsticks."*^ There 
are two reasons for writers and poets to mention jade chopsticks. One is 
to use them to symbolize good living associated with one’s career success. 
A poem by Du Fu is an example: “As gold plates and jade chopsticks are 

“** Xiao Zixian, NanQishu - “Cui Zusi, Liu Shanming, Su Kan, Huan Rongzu” (Biographies 
of Cui Zusi, Liu Shanming, Su Kan and Huan Rongzu), ZJGK, 216. 

In the texts collected in ZJGK, yuzhu (jade chopsticks) appeared 2284 times whereas 
jinzhu (gold chopsticks) 129 times and yinzhu (silver chopsticks) only 54 times. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

nowhere to find, let me just taste the cherry and live my new life.” After he 
relocated from the Tang capital Chang’an to Chengdu, Du received some 
red cherries from his new neighbor. The friendly gesture of his neighbor 
reminded Du of the life he used to have in the capital, for back then 
he received cherries from the imperial court. The “gold plates and jade 
chopsticks” thus stand for the successful life Du once had enjoyed as a 
government official. 

The other reason for the frequent appearance of jade chopsticks is that 
as jade is usually light-colored or transparent, once formed jade sticks 
look like tears flowing down one’s cheeks. As such, yuzhu conjures up the 
image of someone crying. Chinese writers and poets often employed the 
phrase to describe a weeping woman - a widow missing her late husband 
or an unhappy lady-in-waiting in the imperial harem. One poem in the 
New Songs at the Jade Terrace (Yutai xinyong), an important poetry 
collection probably by Xu Ling (507-583), depicts an unhappy court 
lady who saw her youth slip away as she waited for the prince: “gold 
hairpins were hanging loosely on the hair, just as her tears were flowing 
down onto the chest like jade chopsticks.” In another poem, a wife is 
crying over her separation with her husband serving in the army: “Staring 
at Venus in the sky, my eyebrows scrunched together; overwhelmed with 
sorrow, my tears flowed down like jade chopsticks.” Li Bai, the Tang 
poet, also used the metaphor to describe a sad and lonely woman. He 
portrays a scene where the woman is writing a letter to her lover, express- 
ing her longing for their reunion. Then she looks in a mirror, seeing that 
her “tears were like two jade chopsticks, dropping down from her cheeks 
onto the mirror. Instead of stating that she cried, Li suggests that the 
woman did not realize she was shedding tears until she saw herself in the 
mirror: her tears were already rolling down in two lines like jade 

Not only can the color and shape of chopsticks be described literally and 
metaphorically, but their size and length can also be used in measurement. 
Du Fu, for instance, once praises the chives he received from a friend in 
such words: “A fresh bunch of green, their scapes are round and tall 
like jade chopsticks. Over two centuries previously, Jia Sixie in his 
Essential Techniques for the Peasantry also compares the length of noodles 
to chopsticks. When he describes the height and shape of plants and 

Du Fu, Du Gongbuji {Works of Du Fu), ZJGK, 195. 

Xu Ling (?), ed., Yutai xinyong^ ZJGK, 46 &: 52. 

Li Bai, Li Taibai ji (Poems of Li Bai), ZJGK, 143. Du, Du Bongbu ji, ZJGK, 107. 

A pair inseparable: chopsticks as gift, metaphor and symbol 141 

vegetables, he frequently measures them against those of chopsticks for 
comparison, presumably to make his text easily understandable to readers, 
or the peasantry. Over time, as chopsticks became more and more a day- 
to-day item, such comparisons also became increasingly prevalent and 
were made quite creatively and humorously. One interesting, perhaps 
bizarre, case is in the 'Water Margin, a Ming novel. Instead of comparing 
jade chopsticks to tears, which by then had become an archaic usage, the 
author writes, perhaps for exaggerating a peculiar face, that someone’s 
ears resemble a pair of “jade chopsticks” and his eyes bulge like two 
“golden bells.”’’ 

In sum, ever since they became a daily utensil in ancient China, chop- 
sticks have been a beloved subject for writers, poets and philosophers. 
While scholars philosophize on their characteristics to offer political 
wisdom on sound governance, writers employ them as an effective meta- 
phor to aid their descriptions of sadness, anxiety and astonishment. 
Chopsticks also appear in scientific and technical writings, as they are 
easy examples for approximating length, size and shape for illustration. 
Yet poets seem to have favored them the most. From ancient times to 
more or less this day, Chinese poets have continually written about 
chopsticks, commenting on their utility and characteristics and exploring 
their embedded cultural meanings, real and imagined alike. Some exam- 
ples are given here to conclude this chapter. 

Cheng Lianggui, a little known poet, arguably might be the first to have 
composed a poem specifically on chopsticks. It reads: 

Hardworking are the bamboo chopsticks, 
always the first to taste, bitter or sweet; 

Though nothing is eaten, 

they love to serve, back and forth.’*’ 

Chopsticks here are personified as a diligent and selfless worker, a popular 
and recurrent theme in poems about chopsticks. Yuan Mei (1716-1797), a 
well-known writer and connoisseur in the Qing, paints a similar image in 
his poem, with sympathy and a bit of humor: 

Busy as you are, 

taking and giving for the mouths of others; 

Jia, Qimin yaoshu, http://zh. wikisource. org/zh/^K^iii|j, juan 9, for example, when he 
compares the length of noodles to chopsticks; other comparisons are made throughout 
the book. 

” Shi Nan’an, Shuihu zhuan, ZJGK, 113. 

Cited in http://bbs. culture. 163. comfobs/gufeng/i7044i342.html. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

Having tasted all, sour and salty, 
can you savor anything yourself?^^ 

Another popular theme about chopsticks is their straightness, a quality 
with which a person’s moral character is often compared and commended. 
During the early Tang, a writer was already praising the quality of metal 
fire-sticks, or huozhu, as both “straight and steady,” expressing his high 
hopes for such behavior in government officials. Two centuries later, 
Zhou Chi (?-rzi3), who served under the Yuan dynasty, elaborates these 
qualities in his poem: 

Shaped like shorter arrows, 
you are painted in solid red. 

Lining up your heads, you work together, 
as one cannot leave the other. 

In rest, you are next to the plates, 
at work, you are held by palm and fingers. 

Having picked out bones from steamed pork, 
then you draw noodles in oiled scallions. 

Badmouthed often in use, 

stay straight, you never let your work lapse. 

I wish one acts like you, 

in spite of the sorrow wider than a river. 

While offering sympathy for the chopsticks’ hard and unselfish work, 
here Zhou Chi also compares their experience with his own in the 
government. Probably an upright official, Zhou might have offered his 
straightforward advice, only to be “badmouthed” by others. But encour- 
aged and inspired by the exemplary role chopsticks play in life, he hopes 
to “stay straight” like them, not letting his work and his moral standard 
slacken and slip. 

Since this chapter begins with a love story, perhaps it is fitting to end it 
with a love poem. The “inseparableness” of chopsticks has turned them into 
a much-loved object while writing love poems, past and present alike. Some 
of the poems are carved on the husband-wife chopsticks, not only to register 
the couple’s love but also to wish for their shared happiness. The poem 
below was written by a contemporary Chinese poet, and appeared in 
an online blog. It is somewhat unpolished, but touching and beautiful 

Yuan Mei, Suiyuan shihua {Stories of poems at Suiyuan), ZJGK, 45. 

Yang Qia, “Tie huozhu fu” (Rhapsody on iron [chop]sticks), see Liu, Zhongguo zhu 
wenhuashi, zz6. 

Liu, Zhongguo zhu wenhuashi^ 294. 

Some of the poems are available in Lan, Kuaizi, buzhishi kuaizi, 193-246. 

A pair inseparable: chopsticks as gift, metaphor and symbol 143 

nevertheless. The author comments on almost all the characteristics one can 
think of associated with chopsticks use - their sameness in length, 
their togetherness at work, their role in tasting and carrying the food, and 
even their “quietness” as objects - and uses them effectively to depict a 
couple’s love: 

Our lengths are the same, 

Just as the sameness of our hearts; 

Bitter or sweet, 

we spend our life together. 

Having tasted it all, 

We always live side by side. 

One knows the other; 

our intimacy is so seamless, 

no space even for a single word.*^' 


“Bridging” food cultures in the world 

Real Chinese food is delicate and rare; supposed to be tasted rather 
than eaten, for the number of courses is stupendous. If really to the manner 
born, you reach into one general dish with your chop-sticks; it is a clean and 
delicate way to dine. Unless you go in for too much bird’s nest soup and 
century-old eggs, the prices are reasonable. Bird’s nest soup is delicious, but 
anyone can have my share of the heirloom hen fruit. 

Harry Carr, Los Angeles: City of Dreams (New York, 1935) 

If you do not take your courage in hand, click your chopsticks together a few 
times to satisfy sceptical Chinese dinners that you can operate them, and 
plunge head first, so to speak, into real Chinese food, you cannot say that you 
have understood and savoured the taste of China. 

George McDonald, China (Thomas Cook guide book) 

(Peterborough, 2.002.) 

Chopsticks are pronounced the same as “bridge” in Japanese, as mentioned 
previously. Since the mid-nineteenth century, after Asia became incorpo- 
rated into the modern world, the eating tool has indeed played such a part in 
bridging food cultures in that continent and those around the globe. As 
Chinese food moves from “China to Chinatown,” to borrow the title 
of J. A. G. Roberts’s recent book, chopsticks have also traveled along the 
pathway to regions outside the chopsticks cultural sphere of Asia. For a 
non-Asian customer, using chopsticks to convey food, perhaps, is the culmi- 
nation and crystallization of the dining experience in a Chinese/Asian restau- 
rant. To cater to and cultivate such interest, many Chinese restaurant owners 
also use “chopsticks” to name their restaurants outside China, for example 
“Golden Chopsticks” and “Bamboo Chopsticks” are popular.^ Of course. 

^ The finding is drawn on a keyword search in Google. 


“Bridging” food cultures in the world 


chopsticks are not only found in Chinese restaurants, they are also provided 
for customers at Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and sometimes Thai restau- 
rants. As such, chopsticks use adds to the global appeal of Asian foods. 
If chopsticks are a “bridge,” they bring together food cultures not only 
between Asians and non-Asians but also among Asians. 

In the modern world, chopsticks have a global image because they are 
readily noticeable for anyone traveling to the chopsticks cultural sphere in 
Asia. From the sixteenth century when Europeans began visiting Asia, they 
quickly discovered that chopsticks use was a unique way of eating food 
among the Chinese and their neighbors and duly recorded the custom in 
their journals and travelogues. One of the earliest mentions of chopsticks 
appears in the journal written by Galeote Pereira, a Portuguese mercenary 
who went to South China via India between 1539 and 1547. Pereira’s 
account updated Europeans’ knowledge about China after Marco Polo’s 
legendary book of the thirteenth century. (Marco Polo, incidentally, did 
not to mention the Chinese use of chopsticks, just as he omitted their 
drinking of tea.) Pereira finds the Chinese dietary custom both clean and 
civil, for their use of chopsticks. He writes: 

All the people of China, are wont to eat their meat sitting on stools at high tables 
as we do, and that very cleanly, although they use neither table-cloths nor 
napkins. Whatsoever is set down upon the board, is first carved, before that it 
be brought in: they feed with two sticks, refraining from touching their meat with 
their hands, even as we do with forks, for the which respect, they less do need any 

Since chopsticks users did not touch food with their hands, the Europeans 
noticed, Asians did not even need to wash their hands before meals. Louis 
Erois (153 2-1597), a Portuguese Jesuit, and Louren^o Mexia, his traveling 
companion to Japan at the time, came up with a list of things they observed 
that differentiated Asians from Europeans. Asians, or the Japanese whom 
they encountered in this case, not only ate rice instead of bread, but their 
eating habits also diverged: “We wash our hands at the beginning and at 
the end of the meal; the Japanese, who do not touch their food with their 
hands, do not find it necessary to wash them.”^ This was because, observed 
Erancesco Carletti (1573-1636), an Italian merchant visiting Japan in the 
later part of the century, “With these two sticks [chopsticks], the Japanese 
are able to fill their mouths with marvelous swiftness and agility. They can 

^ Boxer, South China in the Sixteenth Century^ 14. 

^ Quoted in Donald F. Lach, Japan in the Eyes of Europe: The Sixteenth Century {Chicago: 
University of Chicago Press, 1968), 688. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

pick up any piece of food, no matter how tiny it is, without ever soiling 
their hands. 

Thus, when first encountering chopsticks, Europeans were quite curious 
and intrigued (Plate 17). They found dining with chopsticks neat and clean, 
for the food would not dirty the hands. This might suggest that while forks 
and knives were believed to be already in use among Europeans by that time, 
there were still occasions when they transported foods with fingers, hence 
the need for napkins and tablecloths. In those early days of discovery, 
Matteo Ricci (r552-r6ro), the founding figure of the Jesuit mission to 
China, gave the most positive impression of chopsticks use. Compared 
with the accounts of his contemporaries, Ricci provides the most detailed 
descriptions of the dietary customs in Ming China for Europeans. While 
others simply called chopsticks “two sticks,” he describes how the eating 
device was made: “These sticks are made of ebony or of ivory or some other 
durable material that is not easily stained, and the ends which touch the food 
are usually burnished with gold or silver.” Ricci also comments that in 
China banquets were “both frequent and very ceremonious,” because the 
Chinese considered the banquet the “highest expression of friendship. ” And 
at banquets, observes Ricci, 

They [the Chinese] do not use forks or spoons or knives for eating, but rather 
polished sticks, about a palm and a half long, with which they are very adept in 
lifting any kind of food to their mouths, without touching it with their fingers. The 
food is brought to the table already cut into small pieces, unless it be something 
that is soft, such as cooked eggs or fish and the like, which can be easily separated 
with the sticks.^ 

Though impressed by their usefulness, Matteo Ricci did not mention 
whether he had tried to dine with chopsticks and, if he had, whether he 
used them as adeptly as did the Chinese. Indeed, of the various accounts 
left by European missionaries and other travelers from the sixteenth to 
the nineteenth centuries, few recorded if they were curious and tempted 
enough to try to use chopsticks, despite the otherwise quite adventurous 
spirit displayed in their accounts. The difficulty in wrapping their fingers 
around chopsticks and learning to use them might have thwarted their 

Yet to some Europeans, while the ability to use chopsticks was striking, 
this eating style remained unappealing, for it was seen at times as 

^ Quoted in Giblin, From Hand to Mouthy 44. 

^ Matteo Ricci, China in the Sixteenth Century: The Journals of Matthew Ricci: 1^8^-1610, 
trans. Louis J. Gallagher (New York: Random House, 1953), 66, 64. 

“Bridging” food cultures in the world 


unrefined. Martin de Rada (1533-1578), a Spanish Augustinian who went 
to Asia from Mexico and landed first in the Philippines and later in South 
China, also noticed that the Chinese ate meals with chopsticks, which 
rendered tablecloths and napkins unnecessary. Yet unlike Galeote 
Pereira and Matteo Ricci, de Rada is less impressed by the custom. “At 
the beginning of a meal they eat meat without bread,” he writes, “and 
afterwards instead of bread they eat three or four dishes of cooked rice, 
which they likewise eat with their chopsticks, even though somewhat 
hoggishly.”® It appeared hoggish to him perhaps because the Chinese lifted 
the rice bowl and pushed the rice into the mouth, as a way to prevent rice 
grains from falling from the chopsticks. 

Peter Mundy (1600-1667), an English traveler who went to South 
China from India in the seventeenth century, was equally impressed with 
the skillful handling of chopsticks by the Chinese he encountered. Yet his 
description of the dining method also smacks of disapproval. In his 
multivolume book, which details his trips to several Asian regions as 
well as to continental Europe, Mundy provides an illustration, portray- 
ing how the Chinese used chopsticks to eat a meal, in which the man 
raised the bowl close to his mouth and thrust the food into it hastily. 
Mundy’s description goes as follows: 

Hee [a boatman on the Grand Canal] taketh the stickes (which are about a foote 
longe) beetweene his Fingers and with them hee taketh uppe his Meat, being first 
cut smalle, as saltporcke. Fish, etts., with which they relish their Rice (it being their 
common Foode). I say first taking upp a bitt of the Meatte, hee presently applies to 
his Mouth a smalle porcelane [bowl] with sodden Rice. Hee thrusts. Grammes and 
stuffes it full of the said Rice with the Chopsticks in exceeding hasty Manner until it 
will hold No more. . . . The better sort eat after the same Manner, butt they sitt at 
tables as we Doe. 

Mundy also mentions that “Then brought they us some henne cut in 
smalle peeces and Fresh porcke Don in like Manner, giving us 
Choppsticks to eat our Meat, butt wee knew not how to use them, soe 
imployed our Fingers.”^ Though amazed by the deftness of the Chinese 
in using chopsticks, which he was unable, possibly also unwilling, 
to imitate, Mundy did not approve of their eating style in general; he 
was a bit surprised by the fact that the upper-class Chinese dined in the 
same style. 

^ Boxer, South China in the Sixteenth Century, 187. 

^ Richard Carnac Temple, ed., The Travels of Peter Mundy, in Europe and Asia, i6o8-i66y 
(Liechtenstein: Kraus Reprint, 1967), vol. 3, 194-195. The illustration is on 165. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

Though unimpressed by the Chinese use of chopsticks, Peter Mundy 
might be the first Englishman who recorded “chopsticks” as the name for 
the utensil. (“Chopsticks” also appeared in Martin de Rada’s earlier 
account but it was a translation; de Rada might have simply used “pal- 
illos” or “sticks” as chopsticks are called in Spanish today.) Could 
Mundy claim the credit for coining the term in English? It is possible 
but it is also likely that someone else did it before him. The word’s 
etymology reveals that “chopsticks” are pidgin Chinese English, com- 
bining “chop” (“quick” in Cantonese) as a prefix with “sticks.” It was 
probably the result of some collaboration between an English person and 
a Cantonese-Chinese. When Mundy described their use, it sounded as if 
the term already existed in his time. 

About three decades later, William Dampier (1651-1715), another 
English traveler who circumnavigated the world three times, mentions 
chopsticks in his Voyages and Descriptions (1699): “They [the utensil] 
are called by the English seamen Chopsticks.” It was during the course 
of the seventeenth century, therefore, that “chopsticks” became coined 
in English to refer to the dining tool. By comparison, the term “sticks” 
has persisted in other European languages. Chopsticks, for example, 
are known as baguettes in Erench and palillos in Spanish (as in de 
Rada’s account), both meaning “sticks.” In German, chopsticks are 
called Eflstdbchen, or “eating sticks,” whereas in Italian, bacchette 
per il cibo, and in Russian, palochki dlia edy, both meaning “sticks for 
food.” An interesting exception is that in Portuguese, chopsticks are 
referred to as hashi, the same as in Japanese, reminding one of the 
Jesuit mission in Asia back in the sixteenth century. 

Erom the eighteenth century, buoyed by the growth of capitalism, 
Europeans’ overall interest in Asia increased notably, as the continent 
was perceived as a potential market for manufactured European goods. 
Yet their interest in Asian civilization and culture, and in the custom 
of chopsticks use in particular, declined. Eord George Macartney 
(1737-1806), the English diplomat who led an official embassy to pry 
open China’s doors from the tight grip of the Qing dynasty (1644- 
1911), expressed the wish that the Chinese would soon learn to adopt 
the use of forks and knives instead. While in China, Macartney was 
greeted by two Chinese officials, or “mandarins,” whom he described 
as “intelligent men, frank and easy in their address, and communicative 
in their discourse.” Upon his invitation, he wrote, “they sat down to 
dinner with us, and though at first a little embarrassed by our knives 
and forks, soon got over the difficulty, and handled them with notable 

“Bridging” food cultures in the world 


dexterity and execution upon some of the good things which they had 
brought us.”*^ 

If Macartney was complimentary about the Chinese mandarins, his 
compliment perhaps had more to do with the fact that, in his mind, the 
English eating custom was superior, or more civilized; as such, he hoped 
the Chinese would follow suit. Compared with his fellow countryman 
Peter Mundy over a century earlier. Macartney was little interested in, 
much less impressed by, the fact that the Chinese, and the Manchus 
(whom he called Tartars), were able to employ chopsticks to transport 
food. Contrary to the previous missionaries’ accounts. Macartney made 
the following observation about the dietary practice in Qing China: 

At their meals they use no towels, napkins, table-cloths, flat plates, glasses, knives 
nor forks, but help themselves with their fingers, or with their chopsticks, which are 
made of wood or ivory, about six inches long, round and smooth, and not very 

In other words, the Chinese eating customs were less civilized as they 
did not use a set of cutlery and other accessories as Europeans did. Even 
if they did use chopsticks, these were not so clean. “Our knives and forks, 
spoons,” Macartney wrote with hope and pride, “and a thousand little 
trifles of personal conveniency were singularly acceptable to everybody, 
and will probably become soon of considerable demand . . 

Lord Macartney failed in his mission to open China’s doors to 
European trade; his requests were rejected outright by the Qing Emperor 
Qianlong (r. 1735-1796) because the Emperor upheld the traditional 
notion that China was the “Middle Kingdom” and the hub of all civiliza- 
tions in the world. However, only about half a century after Lord 
Macartney’s failed visit, the English succeeded in forcing the Qing dynasty 
to come to terms with them. In the aftermath of the Qing’s defeat in the 
Opium War (1839-184Z), the dynasty signed the Treaty of Nanjing, 
which for the first time allowed Europeans and Americans to reside and 
trade in China. A watershed moment, the Opium War ushered in a new era 
in history in that European and Asian cultures were to come into contact 
with each other on a much more frequent basis. 

Yet Macartney’s hope that the Chinese, or East Asians in general, were 
to turn to the use of forks and knives as did Europeans failed to materialize. 

* George Macartney, An Embassy to China: Being the Journal Kept by Lord Macartney 
during His Embassy to the Emperor Ch’ien-lung, ed. J. L. Cranmer-Byng 

(London: Longmans, republished, 1972.), 71. 

^ Ibid., 225-226. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

In fact, through the nineteenth century, as more and more European 
merchants went to China, perhaps swayed by the hospitality and insistence 
of their local hosts, they found themselves more and more attracted and 
adaptive to Asian food and the Asian dining style. Indeed, just as Peter 
Mundy had been asked by the Chinese to learn to use chopsticks. Western 
merchants in nineteenth-century China often had a similar experience. 
Prior to the outbreak of the Opium War, foreign merchants needed to 
sell their merchandise through their Chinese counterparts. As such, they 
worked with Chinese merchants and officials. W. C. Hunter, an American 
businessman, recalled that he and his fellow merchants on occasion 
were treated to “chopsticks dinners” by their Chinese partners. As the 
name indicates, these dinners were in the Chinese style, or as Hunter puts 
it, “no foreign element would be found in it.” Since “these feasts,” in 
Hunter’s words, “were very enjoyable,” one could imagine that he and 
other Westerners probably also tried using chopsticks to eat the food.^° 
After the Treaty of Nanjing, China became more and more accessible to 
Westerners, who traveled there from both Europe and America. When 
invited by the locals to use chopsticks, some adventurous travellers began 
to experiment with the eating device. Laurence Oliphant (1829-1888), a 
British author, traveler and diplomat who served as private secretary to the 
Earl of Elgin, the British plenipotentiary to China in the mid-nineteenth 
century, was an early example. Oliphant records such an experience in 
these words: 

We refreshed ourselves after the fatigues of our exploration at a Chinese restau- 
rant, where I made my first experience in Chinese cookery, and, in spite of 
the novelty of the implements, managed, by the aid of chopsticks, to make a 
very satisfactory repast off eggs a year old preserved in clay, sharks’ fins and 
radishes pared and boiled into a thick soup, beche de mer or sea-slugs, shrimps 
made into a paste with sea-chestnuts, bamboo roots, and garlic, rendered 
piquant by the addition of soy and sundry other pickles and condiments, and 
washed down with warm samshu in minute cups. Dishes and plates were all on 
the smallest possible scale, and pieces of square brown paper served the purpose 
of napkins.'' 

As these words reveal, Oliphant obviously enjoyed the exotic Chinese 
dishes at the restaurant. Moreover, he appeared quite delighted that he 
managed to employ chopsticks in transporting them. So much so that 

W. C. Hunter, The “Fan Kwae” at Canton: Before Treaty Days, 182J-1844 (London: 
Kegan Paul, Trench, & Co., 1882; reprinted in Taipei, 1965), 40-41. 

Laurence Oliphant, Elgin’s Mission to China and Japan, with an introduction by 
J. J. Gerson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970), vol. i, 67-68. 

“Bridging” food cultures in the world 


when he had another dining experience in China, invited that time by a 
Chinese local official, Oliphant makes the following comments, in which 
he states that the Chinese eating custom was “more elegant,” as chopsticks 
were “refined” whereas the knife and fork were “rude”: 

I was glad to have an opportunity at Shanghai of renewing my acquaintance with 
the Taoutai [Daotai, Intendant], whom I found to be a person of considerable 
intelligence and enlightenment. One day I dined with him, and partook not of a 
flimsy refection, such as those usually offered on such occasions, but of a good 
substantial repast, beginning with bird’s-nest soup, followed by shark’s fins, 
beche de mer, and other indescribable delicacies, as entrees, then mutton and 
turkey, as pieces de resistance, carved at a side-table in a civilised manner, and 
handed round cut up into mouthfuls, so that the refined chopstick replaced 
throughout the rude knife and fork of the West. We may certainly adopt with 
advantage the more elegant custom of China in this respect; and as we have 
ceased to carve the joints in dishes, make the next step in advance, and no longer 
cut up slices of them in our plates.'^ 

In contrast to Lord Macartney, Laurence Oliphant perhaps was one of 
the earliest Europeans who considered the Chinese use of chopsticks a 
more civilized eating manner. He too was impressed by the fact that the 
Chinese prepared food items in bitable morsels, readily delivered by 

It is hard to imagine, though, that Oliphant was the only Westerner then 
who took on the challenge of dining with chopsticks in China. In 193 5, an 
American woman named Corrinne Lamb published one of the first recipe 
books on Chinese cookery in English, The Chinese Festive Board. While 
offering fifty recipes of Chinese dishes. Lamb, who apparently had exten- 
sive traveling experience in China, also comments aptly and candidly on 
the dietary customs and eating etiquette as well as a number of proverbs 
relating to food and food culture in the country. At the outset of the book, 
by way of proving her expertise on Chinese food. Lamb corrects some of 
the well-known misconceptions possibly held by her readers, such as that 
rice was the only grain staple for the Chinese and that rat was consumed by 
them on a daily basis. She points out that in addition to rice, which was 
eaten by two fifths of the people, wheat, barley and millet were staple 
grains for the rest of the population. As for rat, she writes that the Chinese 
in South China did eat snake, but not rat. 

Like Oliphant and others. Lamb notes that all food served in China was 
previously “sliced, carved, minced or reduced to proportions which need 


Ibid., 215. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

no further dissection.” As a result, chopsticks alone become quite sufficient 
in carrying food items, and effective. Lamb describes: 

In the first instance, the service of food involves none of the complications of 
foreign table etiquette. What we know as chopsticks are really called in China 
k’uai tzu [kuaizi], which, in turn, may be freely translated as “quick little boys.” 
This term is applied to them on account of their nimbleness and speed when once 
in action and it is a most appropriate name. One pair of k’uai tzu constitutes the 
entire cutlery equipment per person, unless by some chance a small porcelain 
spoon is available or called for to contend with a soup or other thin liquid. 
One bowl per person completes the table service. Many weary American house- 
wives might well wish that their dishwashing worries could be reduced to such a 
minimum. Table linen there is none, thus eliminating another unnecessary 

From her enthusiastic endorsement, it is easy to see that Lamb herself 
might have mastered the skill of using chopsticks, just as she did of cooking 
the Chinese dishes described in her book. Using chopsticks to eat Chinese 
food, indeed, was recommended for the patrons of Chinese restaurants in 
the United States, for “it is a clean and delicate way to dine,” so stated a 
193 5 pamphlet about the city of Los Angeles.^"* 

What is interesting is that Corrinne Lamb’s enthusiasm for chopsticks 
use came at a time when the Chinese themselves began to reflect critically 
on the dietary custom. Through the course of the twentieth century, 
the Chinese made consistent efforts to modernize their society. Some 
of the Chinese took the name “Sick Man of the East,” by which their 
country was disparagingly referred to at the time, to heart and tried 
to improve the health of their compatriots. In Japan, similar attempts 
had been made from the late nineteenth century. For instance, the 
idea of “hygiene” was first introduced to Japan and dubbed eisei 
by the Japanese. Borrowing an existing term from ancient Chinese 
texts, these two Chinese compound words connote the meaning of 
“guarding life,” which emphasizes the importance of hygiene for 
people. The Chinese have also used them, pronounced iveisheng, to 
discuss the idea of “hygiene,” despite some reservations.^'’ It seems 
that they had strong reasons to adopt the Japanese translation because 

Corrinne Lamb, The Chinese Festive Board (Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1985; 
originally published in 1935), 14-15- 
Quoted in Roberts, China to Chinatown^ 151. 

See Ruth Rogaski, Hygienic Modernity: Meanings of Health and Disease in Treaty-Port 
China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 104-164; and Sean Hsiang-lin Lei, 
"Moral Community of Weisheng: Contesting Hygiene in Republican China,” East Asian 
Science, Technology and Society: An International Journal, 3:4 (2009), 475-504. 

“Bridging” food cultures in the world 


during the 1930s a tuberculosis crisis occurred in China, making “guarding 
life” an imminent task. Both Chinese and Western medical professionals 
attributed the quick spread of the disease in the country partly to the 
unhealthy daily habits among the Chinese. One of those habits, lo and 
behold, was that “Food is taken from a common bowl, with the chopsticks 
conveying it to the individual mouth. 

In fact, during the early twentieth century, the Chinese needed to 
combat not only tuberculosis, but also other gastrointestinal diseases. 
To prevent the spread of these epidemics, Chinese medical professionals 
advocated changing the daily habits among their compatriots. This 
amounted to a challenging task in that cultural traditions and social 
customs cannot be transformed overnight, for it often takes a long time 
for them to develop and be accepted among the populace. Granted, the 
Chinese, and other Asians in general, traditionally were conscientious 
about the food they consumed; this was also the general impression 
many Westerners had developed while traveling to the continent. In 
Chinese tradition, food was regarded as having medicinal effects on the 
human body, hence deserving high attention. This idea was also accepted 
and practiced among Koreans, the Japanese, the Vietnamese and other 
Asians. Yet at the same time, observed some Western missionaries, the 
Chinese lacked knowledge of “sanitary science,” even though their lifestyle 
was by and large healthful. Indeed, though the Chinese were aware that 
certain diseases could be contagious and had developed various measures 
to prevent their spread, they were less concerned about food-sharing as a 
source of such contagion. 

Several years after Corrinne Lamb praised the Chinese use of chopsticks 
in carrying food, W. H. Auden (1907-1973) and Christopher Isherwood 
(1904-1986), two British writers, went to wartime China in 1938 and 
offered a rather colorful description of how primary chopsticks were for 
the Chinese: 

One’s first sight of a table prepared for a Chinese meal hardly suggests the idea 
of eating, at all. It looks rather as if you were sitting down to a competition in 

Quoted in Sean Hsiang-lin Lei, “Habituating Individuality: The Framing of Tuberculosis 
and Its Material Solutions in Republican China,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 84:2 
(Summer 2010), 262. 

Ka-che Yip, Health and National Reconstruction in Nationalist China (Ann Arbor: 
Association for Asian Studies, Inc., 1995), 10. 

Ro%as\si,Hygienic Modernity , 103. And Angela Ki Che Leung, “The Evolution of the Idea 
of Chuanran Contagion in Imperial China,” Health and Hygiene in Chinese East Asia, eds. 
Leung Sc Furth, 25-50. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

water-colour painting. The chopsticks, lying side by side, resemble paint-brushes. 
The paints are represented by little dishes of sauces, red, green, and brown. The 
tea-bowls, with their lids, might well contain paint-water. There is even a kind of 
tiny paint-rag, on which the chopsticks can be wiped. 

These vivid words show that Auden and Isherwood were quite impressed 
by the use of chopsticks - they also write that while in China, they tried 
using chopsticks in conveying food, declining the knives and forks offered 
to them by their hosts. These two English authors also liked the custom 
that before a meal, everyone was offered a hot moistened towel to wipe 
their hands and faces, which in their recommendation should be intro- 
duced to the West.^^ 

However, their beautiful depiction of the Chinese dietary practice is not 
so flattering as it appears on first sight. One thing is apparent: as everyone 
competes with each other for getting food, little concern is shown about 
passing their germs on to the communal dishes with their chopsticks. 
Corrinne Lamb also observes in her book that in China once food is put 
on the table, it is “prey to all present.” “There ensues,” she continues, “a 
simultaneous dive of chopsticks into the various dishes, the diners suiting 
their own fancy as to what they desire to concentrate upon after liberal 
sampling of the various offerings.”^” 

Thanks to the education by medical professionals and government 
interventions, awareness of the importance of personal and public hygiene 
has been on the rise in modern China. This awareness helped draw atten- 
tion to the drawbacks of the age-long practice of communal eating. Wang 
Li (1900-1986), a renowned Chinese linguist, coined a term jinye jiaoliu 
(exchange of saliva) to describe the fondness of the Chinese for sharing 
food dishes in the communal eating style. Using gallows humor, he writes 
as follows: 

The Chinese are harmonious towards one another, thanks to the exchange of saliva 
[in dining]. While there are some who have advocated eating separately, there are 
always others who would like to share food as much as possible. For instance, when 
a soup is just brought on to the table, a host often first uses his own spoon to stir and 
sip it. He will do the same to a dish, with his chopsticks. As for inviting guests to eat, 
the host does not seem to care if he exchanges his saliva with all the others. . . . 
Before I sat down at the table, I happened to notice that there was too much saliva 
in the host’s mouth. When he opened his mouth to speak or eat, I could see a web of 

W. H. Auden & Christopher Isherwood, Journal to a War (New York: Random House, 
1939)) 4°- Hot moistened towels are still offered to customers in restaurants in today’s 

“ Lamb, Chinese Festive Board, 15. 

“Bridging” food cultures in the world 


saliva forming between the two rows of his teeth. He then used his chopsticks, 
which had been in and out of the web many times, to clasp and deliver foodstuff 
into my plate, all deferentially. I could not believe my own tongue: Why did the 
same sauteed chicken which had been so tasteful when I put it in my mouth by 
myself become so distasteful when it was delivered by his chopsticks? I must be 
really unworthy of the host’s hospitality.’^' 

Full of sarcasm, Wang’s description was perhaps not completely divorced 
from reality in China; it is likely that his description draws on many of his 
personal experiences. Indeed, before the custom of using serving chop- 
sticks and spoons was introduced to China in the late twentieth century, it 
had been normal for the Chinese, for showing their kinship, hospitality 
and generosity, to grasp food contents from the communal dishes and 
deliver them to others, be they younger family members or invited guests. 
Yet attacks on such communal dining habits had begun already in the early 
part of the century. Wang Li’s sarcastic criticism of how the Chinese 
“enjoyed” exchanging saliva is but one example. Many published essays 
criticized the age-old yet now deemed unhygienic customs practiced 
among the Chinese. Some identified “communal eating” (gongshi) as the 
number one unhygienic habit on the list, whereas others have sought ways 
to modify it, such as urging the use of serving chopsticks (gongkuai or 
“public chopsticks” in Chinese). 

Yet to forsake communal eating was by no means easy; as discussed in 
Chapter 5, sharing food with chopsticks in a common bowl or a pot, such 
as eating a hot pot, had become an entrenched dining habit in China and 
beyond. And communal eating remains in practice among many Chinese, 
Vietnamese and Koreans today. When invited to a familymeal in Vietnam, 
for instance, everyone is given a pair of chopsticks to eat the dishes 
common for all; it remains quite rare for the Vietnamese to use serving 
chopsticks. Rice, however, is served into one’s own bowl by a female 
member of the host family using a serving spoon. In Korea, a Chinese 
visitor finds with surprise that some people use both their spoons and 
chopsticks to partake of food items in the communal dishes at public 

Wang Li, “Quancai” (Feeding), 

Zhang Yichang, “Guoren buweisheng de exi” (The unhygienic habits of my country- 
men), Xinyi yu shehui jikan (Journal of new medicine and society), 2 (1934), 156. Tao 
Xingzhi (1891-1946), a modern educator, asked students in the schools he founded in 
the 1930S to learn the practice of using a serving pair of chopsticks. Lan, Kuaizi, buzhishi 
kuaizi, 173. 

Nir Avieli, “Eating Lunch and Recreating the Universe: Food and Cosmology in Hoi An, 
Vietnam,” Everyday Life in Southeast Asia, eds. Kathleen M. Adams &c Kathleen 
A. Gillogly (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011), 218. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

gatherings. He notes that on such occasions the Chinese are more likely to 
use only chopsticks to take food from the common dishes, and apply the 
utensil rather carefully.^"* 

So, a compromise had to be made. Some medical professionals attemp- 
ted it in the early twentieth century, before the Chinese public was edu- 
cated about the health risks involved in communal eating. In the late 
1910S, Wu Liande (1879-1960), a Cambridge-trained doctor, introduced 
what he called a “hygienic dining table,” otherwise known as the “lazy 
Susan,” to the Chinese, claiming that it was his invention. The most 
hygienic way to consume a meal, Wu admitted, is to eat individually - 
everyone only eats the foods served (or self-served using a serving utensil) 
to his/her own plates or bowls. But this was not the best way to enjoy a 
Chinese meal, he argued. Then the other way was to let everyone pick up 
food items in common plates, but ask them to employ a pair of serving 
chopsticks to first bring the food to his/her rice bowls. To do so, however, 
could be cumbersome and confusing (some may just forget about switch- 
ing between the personal and serving chopsticks), killing the fun of eating. 
Using a lazy Susan, Wu believed, presented a better solution, for it could 
balance the traditional desire among the Chinese to sample various dishes 
at a meal and their newly acquired interest in hygienic dining. More 
specifically, according to Wu’s direction, one should place either a serving 
spoon or a pair of serving chopsticks next to every dish on the platform, 
reminding diners to use them as they rotate the platform and pick up food 
from the dishes. That is, using the lazy Susan this way allows diners to 
continue sharing and savoring the variety of the dishes but at the same 
time, it stops them from passing their saliva on to the common dishes. 

In 197Z US President Richard Nixon paid a historic visit to China. 
As this was an epoch-making event, it was well covered in the Western 
media, allowing the outside world to take a peek into how the Chinese 
had lived on the mainland after the Communists took over power in 
1949. The coverage included, interestingly, details of how President 
Nixon prepared for his trip, such as how he practiced using chopsticks.^'’ 
The time he spent on practicing seems to have paid off, as shown in 
Margaret Macmillan’s description of the banquet the Chinese hosted for 
the visit: 

Tang Libiao, “Han’guo de shili” (Eating etiquette in Korea), Dongfang shiliao yu baojian 
(Food medicine and health care in the East), 9 (2006), 8-9. 

Lei, “Habituating Individuality,” 262-265. 

Ann M. Morrison, “When Nixon Met Mao,” Book Review, Time, December 3, 2006. 

“Bridging” food cultures in the world 


The band played the Chinese and US national anthems, and the banquet began. 
The Nixons and top-ranking Americans sat with Chou En-lai [Zhou Enlai, China’s 
Premier] at a table for 2.0; everyone else was at tables of ten. Each person had an 
ivory place card embossed in gold English and Chinese characters and chopsticks 
engraved with his or her name. 

The Americans had been briefed on how to behave at Chinese banquets. 
Everyone had been issued chopsticks and urged to practice ahead of time. Nixon 
had become reasonably adept, but national-security adviser Elenry Kissinger 
remained hopelessly clumsy. CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite shot an olive 
into the air. . . . 

The lazy Susans spun, laden with duck slices with pineapple, three-colored eggs, 
carp, chicken, prawns, shark fin, dumplings, sweet rice cake, fried rice, and in a nod 
toward Western tastes, bread and butter. 

Wu Liande’s effort to introduce the so-called “hygienic dining table,” or 
lazy Susan, therefore, was not in vain. Over time, the Chinese have indeed 
realized the importance of adopting a hygienic eating style. While few 
families, save for some wealthy ones, have a lazy Susan on their dining 
table, it is quite common to find this round, rotatable platform in restau- 
rants in today’s China and across Asia. At formal or state dinners, such as 
the occasion described at which US President Nixon and his entourage 
were entertained, a lazy Susan is almost indispensable in that it best dis- 
plays the variety of the dishes the Chinese have prepared for the guests to 
sample and savor. Banquets remain “very ceremonious” in China, just as 
Matteo Ricci discovered in the late sixteenth century. 

Despite the detailed description, the Western media did not specify 
whether or not the Nixons and US officials, while eating at lazy Susans, 
were provided with a serving spoon or a pair of serving chopsticks to first 
bring food to their plates. Probably they were not because it was a dignified 
occasion and waiters would most likely have served the food to their 
plates; the guests just needed to use their own chopsticks to move the 
food from the plates to their mouths. But today, most Chinese dining in 
public would follow Wu Liande’s advice, using a serving spoon or a pair of 
serving chopsticks, or gongkuai, to first transport the food items to their 
own bowls before bringing them to their mouths. Indeed, not only do they 

Margaret MacMillan, “Don’t Drink the Mao-tai: Close Calls with Alcohol, Chopsticks, 
Panda Diplomacy and Other Moments from a Colorful Turning Point in History,” 
Washingtonian^ February i, 2007. Here MacMillan tries to compliment Nixon’s adept- 
ness in using chopsticks, but his success seems to be on relative terms. In his memoir, Dirck 
Halstead, an American photographer who witnessed the occasion, recalls instead that “We 
watched as President Nixon made a painful attempt to use his chopsticks on his Peking 
Duck.” “With Nixon in China: A Memoir,” The Digital Journalist, January 2005. 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

use gongkuai while eating out, but they also use them while entertaining 
their guests at home. Chopsticks users are now highly aware of the need to 
practice hygienic dining, even though this means that they have to remem- 
ber the separate roles (public vs. private) assigned to the chopsticks. 

Hygiene awareness has not only modified the communal eating tradition, 
but it has also changed people’s attitudes toward restaurant chopsticks. 
As mentioned in previous chapters, various sorts of public eateries (inns, 
lodges, tea-houses, restaurants, etc.) had existed in China for centuries, 
beginning as early as in the Han period - Ota Masako actually believed 
that the tradition for the Chinese to eat out had started during the 
Warring States period (475-221 bce) and that it also helped promote 
chopsticks use among them.^*^ If this were the case, then one could expect 
that as they were inexpensive and easy to make, it would not take long 
for chopsticks to be offered at those dining places for the convenience 
of customers. However, since the notion of hygiene was by and large 
absent in traditional societies, the sanitary condition of those public 
utensils varied tremendously. Isabella Bird (1831-1904), an English 
writer and globe-trekker, went to Asia in the second half of the nineteenth 
century. Her journal records her negative impression of the unsanitary 
conditions in China. Having witnessed poor laborers (whom she called 
“coolies”) eating meals at a roadside eatery, she writes: “On each table a 
bunch of malodorous chopsticks occupies a bamboo receptacle. An 
earthen bowl with water and a dirty rag are placed outside for the use 
of travellers, who frequently also rinse their mouths with hot water. 
Clearly, those chopsticks appeared squalid because they were not cleaned 
on a regular basis. 

As people’s concern about food hygiene increased, so did their demand 
for clean chopsticks at public eateries. To meet the demand, restaurants 
seem to have two solutions. One is to develop a regime to sanitize regularly 
the chopsticks placed in the receptacles and the other is to let customers use 
disposable, or one-time-use, chopsticks made of cheap wood. In the latter 
case, each customer is given a new pair of chopsticks every time s/he comes 
to eat a meal and these are thrown away after use. As of today, both 
methods are popular, though disposable chopsticks seem more favored 
simply because they look new, unused before by others. Disposable chop- 
sticks are usually prepackaged in a paper or plastic sleeve, with two sticks 
connected together - users need to snap them apart before use. For many. 

Ota, Hashi no genryu o saguru, 229-246. 

Isabella Bird, The Yangtze Valley and Beyond (Boston: Beacon Press, 1985), 193-194. 

“Bridging” food cultures in the world 


this requirement ensures that the chopsticks are new and clean. In Chinese, 
disposable chopsticks are called yicixing kuaizi (one-time-use chopsticks), 
but they are also referred to as weisheng kuai (hygienic chopsticks), 
suggesting they are perceived as sanitary by the public. By comparison, 
one can always question the cleanness of the chopsticks given by restau- 
rants, even if they look clean, not “malodorous” as Isabella Bird found a 
century or so earlier. 

Disposable chopsticks are a Japanese invention. As described in 
Chapter 4, the earliest chopsticks found in Japan were made of wood 
and were discarded, as scholars suspect, after use by construction work- 
ers at some ancient sites. According to Isshiki Hachiro, disposable chop- 
sticks, or waribashi, first appeared in some seafood restaurants in the 
mid-Tokugawa period, or the eighteenth century. The name waribashi 
(lit. split chopsticks) describes how they are connected at one end, requir- 
ing their users to split them into two sticks before putting them into use. 
Made usually of wood, sometimes also of bamboo, disposable chopsticks 
are generally shorter than the reusable ones, such as lacquered wooden 
chopsticks and, in more recent years, plastic chopsticks. Compared with 
the reusable varieties, disposable chopsticks are far more popular in 
Japan; they are present in almost all kinds of eateries, be it a classy restaurant 
or a street food stand. Throwing away wooden chopsticks after use regis- 
tered Shintoist influences, as discussed in Chapter 6, but the heightened 
hygiene awareness of modern times has also reinforced the practice, turning 
it into a powerful and prevalent trend in Japanese society today. 

Over time, the tendency to use disposable chopsticks in public eateries 
has spilled over to Japan’s neighbors; first to South Korea and Taiwan 
and, from the late 1980s on, to China and, more slowly, Vietnam. Yet the 
degree of their popularity varies notably. While in Japan disposable chop- 
sticks are used at restaurants of almost all levels, outside Japan, disposable 
chopsticks tend to be found in smaller cafes and restaurants, such as fast- 
food chains and takeout places. As of today, disposable chopsticks have 
the least appeal to the Vietnamese who prefer instead the reusable variety, 
such as those made of plastic or bamboo. Thanks to the tradition of using 
metal utensils, Koreans also use fewer disposable chopsticks than do the 
Japanese and Chinese. 

This seems to be the experience of Rachel Nu\ver, a New York Times reporter who writes: 
“if you are in the mood for Vietnamese food, you’ll probably be dining with the plastic 
variety [of chopsticks], while Korean restaurants tend to go with metal.” “Disposable 
Chopsticks Strip Asian Forest,” New York Times, October 24, 2011. 

i6o Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

But in China, disposable chopsticks have become ubiquitous. China is 
also the leading exporter of disposable chopsticks in the world. This ought 
not to be so surprising, for since the late 1970s when the country reopened 
its doors to the outside world, it quickly became the “factory of the 
world,” manufacturing almost all the products one can think of and 
exporting them to countries around the world. The period from the late 
1970S onward also witnessed a growing trend among the Chinese to adopt 
the custom of using disposable chopsticks at restaurants. Disposable chop- 
sticks have also become more commonly found at company and school 
canteens, dining halls and cafes than their reusable cousins, made either of 
wood, bamboo or plastic. Needless to say, this switch from reusable to 
disposable chopsticks reflects the rising interest in hygienic dining among 
their users. To fight the spread of disease, the Chinese government at once 
also encouraged the use of disposable chopsticks. The purchase of dispos- 
able chopsticks thus skyrocketed in a country where only a few decades 
ago the reusable variety had been the most common. “Throwaway chop- 
sticks,” states one observer, “are now used in all but the poorest and the 
most expensive restaurants throughout China. The poor ones reuse bam- 
boo chopsticks after cursory washing. The expensive ones prefer sanitized, 
lacquered-wood chopsticks. All the rest use disposable wooden 

The demand for disposable chopsticks therefore is great, and growing. 
One estimate puts it that “Each year, the equivalent of 3 .8 million trees go 
into the manufacture of about 57 billion disposable pairs of chopsticks in 
China.” Of the 57 billion pairs, half of them are used in China; among the 
other half, seventy-seven percent are used by the Japanese, twenty-one 
percent by South Koreans and the remaining two percent by US consum- 
ers. Another estimate goes higher: in China alone, 45 billion pairs of 
disposable chopsticks are used and thrown away every year.^^ The highest 
figure is also the most recent, put out in March 2013, which states that as 
many as 80 billion pairs of one-time-use chopsticks are discarded in China 
every year!^^ 

Disposable chopsticks also play a major role in popularizing Asian 
foods, and Chinese food in particular, outside Asia. The global spread of 

Yang Zheng, “Chopsticks Controversy,” New Internationalist, 311 (April 1999), 4. 
Nuwer, “Disposable Chopsticks Strip Asian Forest,” and Dabin Yang, “Choptax,” Earth 
Island Journal, 21:2 (Summer 2006), 6. 

Malcolm Moore, “Chinese ‘Must Swap Chopsticks for Knife and Fork’,” The Telegraph, 
March 13, 2013. The estimate was given at a speech by a delegate to the People’s Congress 
who proposed to ban disposable chopsticks. 

“Bridging” food cultures in the world i6i 

Chinese and Asian foods began when Asians emigrated to neighboring 
regions, first to parts of Southeast Asia and later, from the iSoos, to such 
faraway continents as Australia, Europe and North and South America. 
The initial reactions to Asian foods, which were usually found only in the 
Chinatowns then emerging in port cities (e.g. San Francisco which has the 
oldest Chinatown in the US), by non-Asians were apathetic and distrustful. 
But as time went on, especially after World War II, Asian and Chinese 
foods found more acceptance, serving not only immigrant communities of 
Asians, but also non-Asians. From the 1960s, according to J. A. G. 
Roberts, a trend of globalization of Chinese food began to occur - 
Chinese food gained an unprecedented popularity among consumers in 
Europe and America. Since then, the trend has not only continued but 
has risen steadily. In the United States, while the number of authentic 
Chinese restaurants has increased notably in major cities, small takeout 
places have also popped up in towns throughout the country, whether they 
are in New York or New Mexico, Connecticut or Colorado. And when 
customers pick up their order, a pair or two of disposable chopsticks in 
paper sleeves are usually stuck inside the food bag. Indeed, in tandem with 
that in Asia, it has been a growing trend for Asian restaurants around the 
world to provide disposable chopsticks to their customers. The popularity 
of Chinese food is also shown in movies and TV series. In such popular hits 
as Seinfeld, Friends, ER and Grey’s Anatomy, one often sees scenes in 
which characters eat Chinese food from takeout boxes, using disposable 
chopsticks. If chopsticks are a cultural “bridge” linking Asia to the world, 
the disposable kind ought perhaps to take the most credit. 

However, the rising demand for disposable chopsticks around the world 
has caused some concern. Indeed, begun as a thrifty way to use wood scraps, 
disposable chopsticks are now perceived by some as an environmental 
hazard, causing deforestation not only in Asia but also around the world. 
According to a report by the United Nations in 2008, 10,800 square miles 
of Asian forest are disappearing each year. Manufacturers thus have 
turned to wood resources elsewhere. As early as in 2006, a subsidiary of 
Japan’s Mitsubishi Group was reportedly cutting down centuries-old 

In the United States in i960, there were over 6000 Chinese restaurants, which employed 
more workers than those working in laundries, the other traditional occupation for 
Chinese immigrants. By 1980, the number of Chinese restaurants in the United States 
and Canada had risen to 7796, constituting nearly thirty percent of all the ethnic restau- 
rants. See Roberts, China to Chinatown,, 164-165. As of today, the number of Chinese 
restaurants in the US is estimated at 40,000. 

i62 Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

aspen groves in western Canada to make 8 million pairs of disposable 
chopsticks per day. In the United States, a company in Georgia is manu- 
facturing and exporting large quantities of wooden chopsticks to Asia, 
using its native gumwood.^’ 

The main appeal of disposable chopsticks is that they are seen as more 
sanitary than the reusable variety. Most Japanese, as put pithily by Yuki 
Komayima, former head of the Canadian Chopstick Manufacturing 
Company, simply “don’t want a chopstick that has been used by some- 
one else.” This is both hygienic and spiritual because according to tradi- 
tional Shinto belief, one’s chopsticks carry one’s spirit, which cannot 
be cleaned off by washing. This is particular to traditional Japanese 
culture. But still, few chopsticks users would use chopsticks unsanitized. 
In China where concerns about food safety have run high in recent years, 
many Chinese do not trust restaurant chopsticks to have been washed 
thoroughly; they would rather choose the disposable type, believing it to 
be more sanitary. Disposable chopsticks, however, are not always as 
clean as one thinks. When they are manufactured in factories, they are of 
course sanitized before being put into individual packages. But ironically, 
the problem arises in the sanitization process because the usual way to 
clean and sterilize the chopsticks once they are made is to apply various 
chemicals, which include paraffin, hydrogen peroxide and insect repel- 
lent. And to prevent the sticks from turning yellow, black or moldy, 
and to help them keep their brand-new look, some manufacturers 
also use sulfur dioxide to polish them. All these chemicals, needless 
to say, are harmful to human health, especially if applied without 
proper supervision. The Chinese government has now set up production 
standards, forbidding or curtailing the use of those chemicals. However, 
as disposable chopsticks are made of cheap wood, they need to be 
bleached and polished in order to have a presentable appearance. Using 
chemicals is the most economic way. Also, though disposable chopsticks 
are mass produced nowadays, this does not mean that they are always 
manufactured in large and well-managed factories that abide by govern- 
ment regulations. Instead, they are more commonly manufactured in 

Nuwer, “Disposable Chopsticks Strip Asian Forest” and “Life-Cycle Studies: Chopsticks,” 
World Watch, 19:1 (January/February 2006), 2. 

Nuwer, “Disposable Chopsticks Strip Asian Forest” and “Life-Cycle Studies: Chopsticks.” 
Citing a Japanese study, Wilson writes that the Japanese have a strong distaste for reusable 
chopsticks, even if they are cleaned. Consider the Fork, 200. 

Jane Spencer, “Banned in Beijing: Chinese See Green over Chopsticks,” The Wall Street 
Journal, February 8, 2008. 

“Bridging” food cultures in the world 


small workshops with a problematic environment, at least according to 
news reports.^* 

While significantly contributing to the popularization of Asian foods 
around the world, disposable chopsticks therefore have their undeniable 
drawbacks: one is the issue about their cleanliness and the other is the 
environmental problem, or deforestation, to which their popularity may 
have contributed. There is not much dispute about how to ensure their 
sanitization; closely monitoring the manufacturers and making sure that a 
safe method is applied in the process is the best way. With respect to 
whether disposable chopsticks have exacerbated deforestation, however, 
there have been differing opinions. China has become the largest producer 
of disposable chopsticks because the disposable-chopsticks industry has 
contributed to the country’s economic boom, employing over 100,000 
people, mostly in Northeast China. “The chopsticks industry,” says Lian 
Guang, founder and president of the Wooden Chopsticks Trade 
Association in Heilongjiang Province, “is making a great contribution by 
creating jobs for poor people in the forestry regions.” Besides the economic 
benefit, Lian adds, the industry does not chop down valuable trees to make 
the chopsticks that are used and discarded within thirty minutes of a usual 
mealtime. Instead, disposable chopsticks are typically made from such 
fast-growing woods as birch and poplar, as well as bamboo, which is an 
abundant plant. In other words, like their predecessors in early Japan, 
today’s disposable chopsticks are made of leftover wood that is not useful 
for other industries. 

Be that as it may, the environmental cost remains a concern for 
some because of the high demand for chopsticks around the world. 
Environmentalists estimate that if China (only) consumes 45 billion pairs 
of disposable chopsticks per year, Z5 million trees must fall each year to 
meet the demand - not only birch and poplar but also cottonwood, spruce 
and aspen. Up till 2006, as the world’s leading producer, China had 
shipped 180,000 tons of disposable chopsticks to other countries, with 
Japan being the most favored destination. Yet compared with Japan, 
which boasts a forest coverage rate of sixty-nine percent, the highest in 
the world, China is short of trees; its forest coverage rate is less than 
fourteen percent. Of course, the rapid pace of deforestation in China is 

Nuwer, “Disposable Chopsticks Strip Asian Forest”; “Life-Cycle Studies: Chopsticks”; 
and Yuan Yuan, “Yicixing kuaizi tiaozhan Zhongguo guoqing” (Disposable chopsticks 
challenge China as a country), Liaoivang zhoukan (Outlook weekly), 33 (August 13, 

Spencer, “Banned in Beijing: Chinese See Green over Chopsticks.” 


Chopsticks: a cultural and culinary history 

caused by the country’s overall modernization; it cannot and should not be 
attributed solely to the making of disposable chopsticks. But the ubiquity 
of disposable chopsticks in the country has spurred some of its citizens, 
including a few pop stars, to action, calling for a return to the reusable 
type. Other green activists have started the BYOC (Bring Your Own 
Chopsticks) movement, asking consumers to use their own utensils while 
eating out. A similar campaign - “Let’s Carry Our Own Chopsticks” - is 
being waged simultaneously in Japan. The Chinese government imposed a 
tax on wooden chopsticks in 2007."^° 

At the end of 201 1, hoping to raise public awareness of timber waste in 
making disposable chopsticks, 200 college students in China who were 
members of Greenpeace East Asia collected 82,000 pairs of them and made 
a “disposable forest” that consisted of four large trees, each sixteen feet 
high. These chopsticks trees stood in a busy shopping mall, while the 
students asked for signatures from spectators on a petition for banning 
the disposable utensil nationwide - such major cities as Shanghai and 
Beijing have already asked their restaurants to replace disposable chop- 
sticks with reusable ones. In Japan, many restaurant owners nowadays no 
longer automatically provide disposable chopsticks to their customers; 
instead they are only given when asked for. And if eating in, customers 
are encouraged to use the reusable variety, stashed in a receptacle on the 
table. Japanese companies’ canteens have also gradually replaced throw- 
away chopsticks with the reusable type.*^' 

At the same time, serious attempts are made among Asians to recycle 
throwaway chopsticks. As they are made of wood, disposable chop- 
sticks, once collected, can be turned into other useful items. Several 
Japanese companies are doing exactly that by making paper, facial 
tissues and particleboard from throwaway chopsticks."^^ Some scientists 
have experimented with ways to gasify waste disposable wooden or 
bamboo chopsticks to generate synthesis gas and hydrogen energy. 
Others have attempted to extract glucose from them to help produce 
ethanol as well as to recycle their fiber into making polylactic acid (PLA), 
a widely useful polyester in industry and medicine. At present, these 

Moore, “Chinese ‘Must Swap Chopsticks for Knife and Fork’”; Nuwer, “Disposable 
Chopsticks Strip Asian Forest” and “Life-Cycle Studies: Chopsticks.” 

Spencer, “Banned in Beijing: Chinese See Green over Chopsticks”; “Chopped 
Chopsticks,” The Economist^ 316:7665 (August 4, 1990); and Nuwer, “Disposable 
Chopsticks Strip Asian Forest.” 

Nuwer, “Disposable Chopsticks Strip Asian Forest.” 

“Bridging” food cultures in the world 


ideas have not gone beyond the experimental stage. But they are 
certainly noteworthy and with significant potential. As 1.5 billion people 
use chopsticks to convey food on a daily basis and many of them (still) 
use the disposable type, there is no shortage of chopsticks to industrialize 
any of the experiments, benefitting people in Asia and around the world. 
Once that happens, or once ways of reusing waste chopsticks are effec- 
tively and broadly adopted, our story of chopsticks will come full circle: 
through history, chopsticks have become a popular dining tool because 
they are convenient and economical. They can retain and expand on 
these two essential features to better serve people in the years to come. 

Kung-Yuh Chiang, Kuang-Li Chien & Cheng-Han Lu, “Hydrogen Energy Production 
from Disposable Chopsticks by a Low Temperature Catalytic Gasification,” International 
Journal of Hydrogen Energy, 37:20 (October 2012), 15672-15680; Kung-Yuh Chiang, 
Ya-Sing Chen, Wei-Sin Tsai, Cheng-Han Lu & Kuang-Li Chien, “Effect of Calcium Based 
Catalyst on Production of Synthesis Gas in Gasification of Waste Bamboo Chopsticks,” 
International Journal of Hydrogen Energy, 37:18 (September 2012), 13737-13745; 
Cheanyeh Cheng, Kuo-Chung Chiang 6c Dorota G. Pijanowska, “On-line Plow 
Injection Analysis Using Gold Particle Modified Carbon Electrode Amperometric 
Detection for Real-time Determination of Glucose in Immobilized Enzyme Hydrolysate 
of Waste Bamboo Chopsticks,” Journal of Electroanalytical Chemistry, 666 (Eebruary 
2012), 32-41; Chikako Asada, Azusa Kita, Chizuru Sasaki 6c Yoshitoshi Nakamura, 
“Ethanol Production from Disposable Aspen Chopsticks Using Delignification 
Pretreatments,” Carbohydrate Polymers, 85:1 (April 2011), 196-200; Yeng-Fong Shih, 
Chien-Chung Huang 6c Po-Wei Chen, “Biodegradable Green Composites Reinforced by 
the Fiber Recycling from Disposable Chopsticks,” Materials Science & Engineering: A, 
(March 2010), 1516-1521. 


To end this book, I would like to share a personal story. When I was four 
or five, my mother, who has been a busy career woman all her life, sat me 
down one afternoon, asking me to practice the correct use of chopsticks. 
Of course, as a child growing up in China, I had been using chopsticks, 
along with a spoon, to eat before then. But my mother thought that I had 
reached the right age to learn to use chopsticks the right way. She taught 
me the correct method and asked me to clasp and move my toy wooden 
blocks spread on the table. What a long and grueling afternoon! I did not, 
initially, feel natural holding and using the chopsticks in the way she taught 
me. But in the end, I got used to it. And I have been using the utensil this 
way ever since. 

I assume my experience was not uncommon among my generation, 
for as I was growing up, I saw many people use chopsticks the same 
way. Of course, I also saw some others who used the utensil in their own 
self-developed ways. Honestly, I must say that I find my way, or the way 
I learned from my mother, both more elegant and effective. In more recent 
decades, as an academic, I have traveled extensively across Asia. I have 
seen that most Japanese, Vietnamese and Koreans hold chopsticks in the 
same way that I do. How is this so? Did they have similar childhood 
experiences? Why do so many people in the region, or in the chopsticks 
cultural sphere, bother to learn to use the implement to convey foods? 

I do not think I have found all the answers to these, and other related 
questions readers might have, in researching this book. For instance, I have 
not been able to locate a book - a manual or an instruction guide - from 
the past that teaches people how to use chopsticks correctly. I guess the 
way my mother taught me was also how she had learned to use chopsticks 




herself from her parents when she was young. I have no idea how early 
this seemingly universal method for chopsticks use was developed and 
adopted among chopsticks users inside the zone. What I have found is as 
follows. There were multiple reasons why the Chinese and other Asians 
learnt to use chopsticks in carrying food to their mouths, even though it 
requires more practice than using a spoon, a fork and a knife. The first, 
perhaps also the most obvious reason, was in order to eat cooked food. In 
1964, Claude Levi-Strauss (1908-2009), the legendary French anthro- 
pologist, published a seminal work. The Raw and the Cooked, in which 
he analyzed the part cooking played in bridging the worlds of humans 
and nature, or culture and nature. To him, this was a universal stage of 
civilizational development across the globe. In the book, Levi-Strauss 
cited several cases from different cultures and concluded that cooking, 
even a symbolic act of cooking, became a way to transform a person, 
changing him/her into a new phase of physiological development, or from 
“raw” to “cooked.” “The conjunction of a member of the social group 
with nature must be mediatized,” Levi-Strauss observed, “through the 
intervention of cooking fire, whose normal function is to mediatize the 
conjunction of the raw product and the human consumer, and whose 
operation thus has the effect of making sure that a natural creature is at 
one and the same time cooked and socialized [italics in the original].” 
Interestingly, the French scholar also noted that utensils played “a medi- 
atory function” between nature and culture.^ 

The “raw” (sheng) and the “cooked” (shu) were two concepts, or 
signifiers, frequently used in ancient China to mark different levels of 
civilizational development in their known world. That is, a civilized soci- 
ety, such as their own as the Chinese believed, was “cooked” in contrast to 
barbaric or “raw” societies who were usually located on the margins of 
their cultural realm. The word for China in Chinese is Zhongguo, which is 
customarily rendered in English as the “Middle Kingdom.” Yet the term 
also denotes the center/periphery binary in geography, as the cradle of 
Chinese civilization was traditionally believed to be in North China, 
located roughly in the center of mainland Asia. When they described 
the differences between their society and that of the inhabitants away 
from the center, the Chinese applied the two terms raw and cooked, or 
sheng and shu, quite literally and considered eating cooked or raw food a 
demarcation of cultural differences. The phrase rumao yinxue (literally 

^ Claude Levi-Strauss, The Raw and the Cooked: Introduction to a Science of Mythology: /, 
trans. John & Doreen Weightman (New York: Harper 6c Row, Publishers, 1969), 334-336. 



meaning eating haired - or raw - animal meat and drinking fresh blood), 
therefore, became a standard expression, indiscriminately used by the 
ancient Chinese in North China to accentuate the barbarity of the other 
groups, regardless of whether they were the nomads from the Mongolian 
Steppe or the mountain people south of the Yangzi River. Indeed, for the 
Chinese, comments Frank Dikotter, “The consumption of raw food was 
regarded as an infallible sign of savagery that affected the physiological 
state of the barbarian.”^ 

The Chinese preference for cooked food was also extended to drinking 
water: many of them prefer boiled or warm water instead of cold water. 
By the Tang period, tea had become a popular beverage throughout the 
land. In subsequent centuries, tea also spread to the neighboring regions in 
East Asia and beyond. If the Chinese believed that eating cooked food 
distinguished their culture from their neighbors’, then drinking boiled 
water flavored by tea leaves, instead of the unboiled - “raw” - water, 
would certainly achieve a similar effect. Tea drinking, as mentioned in the 
Introduction, played its part in facilitating the wide use of chopsticks as an 
eating tool in Asia. 

Drawing on Claude Levi-Strauss’s thesis, cooking food and boiling 
water thus help transform humans from nature to culture. In this process, 
utensils use also played a part. This is the second observation I have made 
in this book. The example given by Levi-Strauss was the contrast between 
roasting and boiling. Both were/are popular ways of cooking, of course. 
But to Levi-Strauss, there are differences: “the roast can be placed on 
the side of nature, and the boiled on the side of culture,” for boiling entails 
the use of a receptacle, “which is a cultural object.” In other words, though 
roasting and boiling both use fire, the former exposes food directly to 
fire, a form of nature, whereas the latter works through a cultural media- 
tion.^ The Chinese, too, considered the use of utensils in handling food a 
cultural, or cultured, sign. During the Tang period, contacts between the 
Chinese and outsiders, some from as far as Central Asia, were quite 
frequent; Buddhism, which entered East Asia no later than the second 
century, played a role in facilitating such cultural exchanges. Not only 
did Chinese Buddhists make pilgrimages to India and other Buddhist 
kingdoms in South and Southeast Asia, but Korean and Japanese 

^ Frank Dikotter, The Discourse of Race in Modern China (Hong Kong: Hong Kong 
University Press, 1992), 9. 

^ Claude Levi-Strauss, The Origin of Table Manners: Introduction to a Science of 
Mythology, trans. John & Doreen Weightman (New York: Harper 6c Row, Publishers, 
1978), 479-480. 



Buddhists and travelers also came to visit Tang China - some of them 
staying there for a long period of time. In Chinese travelers’ accounts, 
many authors quickly noticed and recorded how the natives still used their 
hands to convey food to their mouths.'* Yet thanks to Tang cultural 
influences, all this was about to change. From the seventh century onward, 
as I have detailed in this book, the chopsticks cultural sphere took shape; 
more and more people in the region adopted the dietary custom of eating 
with utensils. 

If East Asians believe that using utensils to convey foods amounts to 
cultured behavior, using chopsticks in particular is a result of the changing 
food production, preparation and consumption in the region. The fact that 
cooked rice, one of the staple grains in the zone, can be carried in 
lumps (thanks to its consistency) with a pair of chopsticks, facilitated the 
implement being widely used for transporting both grain and nongrain 
foods. This is a dietary custom commonly seen in East and Southeast Asia 
today but which goes back as early as at least of the eleventh century. Yet 
the real push for chopsticks use, I suggest, came from the growing appeal of 
floured wheat products, which occurred in China from the first century 
and elsewhere in the continent from a later period. In particular, eating 
noodles and dumplings rendered the spoon, which had been the primary 
eating implement across the area, less useful. In other words, the changing 
ways of food production and preparation exerted a major impact on the 
choice of utensils by their users. Chopsticks became a ubiquitous eating 
device because of the grain staples people grew and consumed in the 

Compared with other eating tools, chopsticks have an obvious 
advantage - they are economical and easy to make from many common 
materials. So the popularity of chopsticks use by and large followed a 
bottom-up route: the instrument was more readily adopted as the sole 
eating device by people of the lower social strata than those of the upper 
echelon; the latter clearly had other tools available to them. Yet at the same 
time, chopsticks gained ground at the expense of other eating implements 
also because of the development of table manners and rudimentary con- 
cern for food cleanness and hygiene. Although I have not located a manual 
on using chopsticks in history, there is a sizable body of literature on dining 

My discussion here draws on a keyword search, using bizhu, in the Siku quanshu (Complete 
Library of the Four Treasures) database, the largest collection of texts on imperial China, 
which shows that the Chinese usually noted that other Asians outside their cultural realm 
did not use utensils for meals. 



etiquette, habits and customs, originating as early as the age of Confucius, 
or the fifth century bce. The eating instructions given by those compendia 
were mostly targeted at keeping up appearances and maintaining polite- 
ness toward others, which also reflected, perhaps indirectly, an interest in 
keeping the food clean and hygienic. Whether one is rich or poor, these are 
legitimate concerns regarding food consumption. Given their nimbleness 
and slim shape, chopsticks have enabled their users to pick up whatever 
they desire swiftly in the bowl or plate. Of course, to do so requires one to 
use chopsticks skillfully and to follow the customary chopsticks etiquette. 
As we have seen, this etiquette shares many similar characteristics across 
the chopsticks cultural sphere. One thing is quite clear: chopsticks are not 
an enabler for “double dipping” in food, as many outside the zone might 
believe on first sight. On the contrary, I would like to argue, their proper 
use actually helps people to alleviate concerns, perhaps most economically 
in a pre-modern age, about contaminating food while sharing it with 
others. In a modern age, despite the concerns about deforestation, dispos- 
able wooden chopsticks have become a convenient means for people to eat 
foods hygienically, for using disposable plastic utensils (which are harder 
to break down than wood) as an alternative might be environmentally 
more damaging. 

Lastly, I now believe I understand the reason why instructions for 
chopsticks use went unwritten for many centuries. For among their 
users, this instrument has been interwoven, naturally and seamlessly, 
into the basic fabric of their daily lives. Using it to convey foods is an 
essential experience of how one grows up in the chopsticks cultural sphere. 
Given how indispensable they are, chopsticks thus become much more 
than a mere eating tool. That the Japanese call the utensil “the sticks for 
one’s life” is a case in point, for chopsticks are, for the Japanese as well as 
for other Asians, a symbol for life. This is suggested by the great number of 
folktales, fables, fairytales, myths and legends about chopsticks and their 
use that have appeared in the region. While growing up, children not only 
learn how to hold the sticks correctly with their fingers, they are also told 
these stories by their parents and grandparents until they remember them 
by heart and can retell them to their children in future years. In sum, having 
accompanied and served the people in regions of East and Southeast 
Asia for several millennia, chopsticks and their use have become a living 
tradition. This tradition lives on with life itself. 








char kway teow 

chengre chi 




























gohan o taberu 



gongyi zhu 


hakurai no hashi 




hashisugi shinko 



honzen ryori 







huiyu zhu 










jinye jiaoliu 
















kogei bashi 



kuaizi sben 












































rumao yinxue 




seimei no tsue 








shinjin kyoshoku 



























weisheng kuai 

xian xiami, xian chifan 










yicixing kuaizi 












zhima shaobing 














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(Agricultural archaeology), 2 (1997), 225-235. 

Zhen Jun Tianzhi ouwen HJ (Legends of the heavenly realm) (Beijing: 

Beijing guji chubanshe, 1982). 

Zhongguo shehui kexueyuan kaogu yanjiusuo (The 

Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of the Social Sciences), Fang 
Chang’an chengjiao Suimu (The Sui tombs near the Tang 

capital Chang’an) (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1980). 

Zhou Xinhua Tiaodingji (Collection of food essays) (Hangzhou: 

Hangzhou chubanshe, 2005). 


A History of Chopsticks Culture in China 
(Zhongguo zhu wenhuashi), 17 
An Illustrated Record of the Chinese Embassy 
to the Goryeo Court during the Xuanhe 
Era (Xuanhe fengshi Gaoli tujing), 86 
Analects, 26 

Anderson, E.N., 18, 59, 97, 99 
Aoki Masaru, 96, 97 
artistic chopsticks, 57 
Ashikaga Yoshikatsu, 129 
Ashikaga Yoshimasa, 129 
Ashikaga Yoshinori, 129 
Assorted Records of Kitchen Matters (Chuji 
ruiki), 78, 83 
Auden, W. H., 153, 154 
Avieli, Nir, 70 

Bai Juyi, 63, 135 

bamboo chopsticks, 15, 23, 43, 56, 68, 73, 
78, 80 
baozi, 54 
barbecuing, 88 
Barber, Kimiko, 2 
Barthes, Roland, 10 
baxianzhuo. See eight-immortal table 
bed-stove table, 104, 105 
bench. See chair 
bento box, 108 
bi (spoon), 5, 18, 40, 45, 64 
bing (wheat dough), 50, 51, 52, 61 
Bird, Isabella, 158, 159 
bizbu (spoon and chopsticks), 6, 44, 45, 

boiling, 4, 21, 30, 40, 60, 88, 168 

Bray, Francesca, 36 

Bronze Age, 4, 17, 18, 28, 38, 46 

Briissow, Harald, 20 

Buddhism, 12, 58, 75, 82, 131, 168 

cai (nongrain food), 35, 40, 54, 62 

Cao Cao, 45 

Carletti, Francesco, 145 

Ch’oe Pu, 94, loi, 109 

chair, 102, 106 

Champa rice, 97 

Chang, K.C. (Kuang-chih), 29 

Chang, Te-tzu, 97 

char kway teow (stir-fried noodle), 71 

Chen Shou, 44, 45, 74, 133 

Chen Youliang, 93 

Cheng Lianggui, 14 1 

chi (spoon), 18, 45, 63 

chirirenge (soup spoon), 118 

chizhu (spoon and chopsticks), 45, 95 


and Chinese eating habit, 4, 5, 20 
and communal eating, 102, 108 
and food hygiene, 116, 117, 118, 152, 

153. 156, 158, 159 

and fortune telling, 129, 130 
and meat consumption, 89 
and spiritual connection, 127, 13 1 
appeal, 3, 4, 9, 14, 15, 35, 98, 145, 146, 
165, 168, 169 
as cooking tool, 9, 17, 18 
as cultural symbol, 13, 21, 22, 123 




chopsticks (cont.) 

as exclusive eating tool, 8, 68, 73,74,95, loi 
as gift, 137 

as literary metaphor, 14, 139, 140, 141, 

142, 143, 144 

as mark of civilization, 4, 5, 10, ii, 12, 167 
as primary eating tool, 8, 66 
as secondary eating tool, 6, 34, 40 
as symbol for life, 129, 130, 138, 140, 165 
as wedding gift, 13 
at New Year celebration, 125 
at wedding ceremonies, 13, 123, 124 
benefits, 2, 3 

combined with knives and forks, 92 
compared with fingers, 14 
compared with knives and forks, 9, 149, 

151, 167 

compared with spoon, 5, 6, 118, 167 
decline in use, 3 

different designs, 77, 83, 84, 85, 102 
etiquette, 12, 13, 82, 108, in, 114, 115, 

116, 118, 132, 169 
festival, 113 

for birthday celebration, 125, 129 

for drinking tea, 8, 9 

for eating dumplings, 54 

for eating hot pot, 106, 107, 118 

for eating noodles, 6, 7, 8, 54, 130 

for eating porridge, 3 3 

for eating rice, 13,38, 39,40, 96, 100, 169 

for eating stir-fried dish, 61 

for expressing emotion, 14, 131, 132, 133, 

134, i 35 > 143 
for making argument, 4 1 
for measurement, 140 
for playing music, 136 
for proposing marriage, 122 
harm, 3 
in English, 148 
in European languages, 148 
in Korean legends, 128 
in naming restaurants, 145 
in poems, 14, 141, 142, 143 
in Vietnamese legends, 128 
Japanese design, 73 
method, 10, 12, 112, 113, 114, 166 
name change, 119, 123 
of precious materials, 14, 23, 138 
on television, 161 
origin, 4, 16, 18, 20, 21, 25, 40 
positions on the table, 108 

taboos, 112, 113, 114, 116, 118, 127, 132 
their relation with spoon, 5, 7, 8, 43, 45 
training, 113 

used by Asian nomads, 90 
used by Japanese, 73, 76, 77, 80 
used by Jurchens, 91 
used by Kitans, 91 

used by Koreans, 6,9, 83, 84, 85, 87, 88, 109 
used by Manchus, 92 
used by Mongols, 91, 92 
used by South Asians, 
used by Turks, 56 
used by Vietnamese, 69, 73 
chopsticks cultural sphere, i, 2, 3, 5, 8, ii, 
i3> 2.3, 57, 66, 68, 109, 121, 127 
Chronicles of Japan (Nihon shoki), 77, 

79, 80 

Cixi, Empress Dowager, 24 
Classic of History, 105 
Classic of Odes (Shijing), 28, 35, 36, 105 
Classic of Rites (Liji), 25, 26, 27, 30, 31, 32, 
33 > 34 , 42, 46, 94 , III 
Collection of Documents of the Song 

Diplomatic Relations with the Northern 
Regimes (Sanchao beimeng huibian), 90 
Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves 
(Manydshu), 75, 79, 80 
communal eating, 102, 103, 104, 109, no, 
115, 117, 118, 154, 155, 158 
Confucianism, 44, 66 
Confucius, II, 26, 29, 32, 46, 47, 169 
Cui Hao, 132 
Cui Shi, 51 

da Cruz, Caspar, loi 
Dampier, William, 148 
Dawson, Raymond, 1 1 
de Rada, Martin, 147 
Dikotter, Frank, 167 

disposable chopsticks, 14, 77, 158, 160, 164 
appeal, 14, 159, 160, 162, 163 
harm, 161, 162, 163 
variety, 159 
Dong Yue, 88 
Dong Zhuo, 45, 52 
Dragon Boat Eestival, 70 
Dream of the Red Chamber (Elongloumeng), 

Du Fu, 65, 139, 140 
dua (chopsticks), 119 
dumplings, 6, 7, 54, 55, 98 



eight-immortal table, 104, 105, 106 
enmusubibashi (lover chopsticks), 121, 122 
Ennin, 54, 64, 75, 82 
Ennin’s Diary, 54, 82 
Essential Techniques for the Peasantry 
(Qimin yaoshu), 29, 52, 59, 60, 140 
Etiquette, 113 

Famous Sites on the West Lake (Xihu 
fanshenglu), 138 

fan, 25, 26, 61, 62, 63, 65, 95, 100 
as grain food, 34, 40, 54 
Fan Kuai, 48 
Fan Shengzhi, 5 1 
Fan Ye, 48 

fangzhuo (square table), 104 

Feng Menglong, 99, 105 

fenshizhi (individual eating style), 102 

Fernandez-Armesto, Felipe, 3 7 

finger food, 26 

fire-sticks, 21, 142 

foodway, i, 69, 73, 85 

fork, 7, 9, 19 

Freeman, Michael, 97 

Frois, Louis, 145 

Fu Xi (Mi Xi), 50 

Gao Chongwen, 9 5 

Gao Chu, 132 

Gao fixing, 133 

geng (stew), 5, 34, 40, 47, 62 

gold chopsticks, 137, 138 

Golden, Peter B., 5 5 

gongyi zhu (artistic chopsticks), 57 

Goryeo dynasty, 85, 87, 88 

Guan Zhong, 3 2 

Han dynasty, 19, 23, 27, 41, 44, 47, 48, 84 
Han Feizi, 22, 23, 136 
Han Xizai, 103 
Han Yu, 62, 63 
hashi (bridge), 126 
hashi (chopsticks), 119 
Hashimoto Keiko, 43, 73, 74, 76, 96 
heshizhi (communal eating style), 102 
Historical Records of the Three Kingdoms 
(Samguk sagi), 85, 86 
History of the [Liu] Song dynasty 
(Songshu), 134 

History of the Goryeo Dynasty 
(Goryeosa), 87 

History of the Jin Dynasty (Jinshu), 134 
History of the Northern Dynasties (Beishi), 85 
History of the Southern Qi Dynasty 
(NanQishu), 139 

History of the Sui (Suishu), 74, 75, 79 
History of the Three Kingdoms (San’guozhi), 

44 , 74 , 133 
Ho Ping-ti, 29 
hot pot, 98, 106, 107, 118 
its variety, 107, 108 
Houji (Ford of Millet), 28 
Huan Tan, 50 
Hunter, W. C., 150 
Huntington, Samuel H., 67, 68 
huntun (wonton), 54, 55 
huren, 51, 102 

Illustrated Record of the Chinese Embassy to 
the Goryeo Court during the Xuanhe 
Era (Xuanhe fengshi Gaoli tujing), 88 
Iryon, 85 

Isherwood, Christopher, 153, 154 

Ishige Naomichi, 55 

Isshiki Hachiro, 2, 67, 68, 73 

ivory chopsticks, 22, 73, 136, 137, 139, 158 

jade chopsticks, 14, 139, 140, 141 

jeotgarak (chopsticks), 119 

ji (millet), 30 

jia (chopsticks), 23 

Jia Sixie, 29, 52, 59, 60, 140 

Jiangnan (Yangzi Delta), 99, too, loi 

Jianzhen, 82 

jiaozi (dumpling), 54 

jikabashi (direct chopsticks), no, 116 

Joseon dynasty, 22, 87, 94, 115 

kami (deity in Japan), 80, 81, 125, 126, 13 1 

kang (platform bed), 104 

kangzhuo.. See bed-stove table 

katakuchibashi (one-ended chopsticks), 83 

Kentoshi, 75 

Kenzuishi, 75 

Kim Pu-sik, 84, 86 

Kissinger, Henry, 157 

Knechtges, David, 5 1 

knife, 9, ii, 19 

kogei bashi (artistic chopsticks), 57 
Kong Yingda, 25, 32 
kuaizi (chopsticks), 119, 123, 152 
Kublai Khan, 106 



lacquered chopsticks, 8i 

Lamb, Corrinne, 151, 152, 153, 154 

lamian (noodle), 7, 55, 114 

Lan Xiang, 82, 121 

lazy Susan, 156, 157 

Lee Tsung-dao, 14 

Levi-Strauss, Claude, 167 

Li Bai, 135, 140 

Li Y anshou, 85, 131, 132 

Li Yuheng, 119 

Hang (millet), 30 

Liao dynasty, 90 

Lin Hong, 107 

Lin Yu-tang, 48 

Liu Bang, 41, 48 

Liu Bei, 45, 133 

Liu Xi, 50, 53 

Liu Yun, 17, 56, 57 

Liu Yuxi, 130, 131, 135 

Longqiuzhuang, 16, 17, 28, 38 

Lu Rong, 1 19 

Lii Sengzhen, 131, 133 

Lu Xu, 48 

Lu You, 95, 96, 116 

Macartney, Lord George, 148, 149, 151 
Macmillan, Margaret, 156 
maifan (cooked wheat), 49, 50 
manabashi (cooking chopsticks), 80, 83 
mantou (steamed buns), 53 
Marco Polo, 145 

Mawangdui Tombs, 42, 43, 44, 47, 56 
meat, 46, 59 

in Asian cuisine, ii, 12, 46, 47, 48, 60 
meimeizen (one meal per person), 

109, no 

Mekong River, 69 

Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms 
(Samguk yusa), 85 
Mencius, ii, 26, 27, 47 
Meng Yuanlao, 95, 97 
metal chopsticks, 23, 56, 57 
and meat consumption, 59 
preferred by Koreans, 60, 87, 115 
Mexia, Lourenqo, 145 

millet, 5, 6, 27, 28, 29, 3 1, 32, 33, 37, 38, 40, 
50, 51, 61, 62, 64, 86, 87, 96, 151 
as grain food, 5, 6, 25, 29, 31, 35 
different from rice, 30, 39, too 
milling, 49, 50, 60 
Ming dynasty, 8, 63, 93, 96, loi 

miotobashi (husband-wife chopsticks), no, 
121, 122 

Miscellaneous Records of Korea (Chaoxian 
zalu), 88 
miso soup, 5 5 
Mo Zi, 50 

Monthly Ordinances for the Four Peoples 
(Simin yueling), 51 
Mote, Frederick, 1 1 
Mukai Yukiko, 43, 73, 74, 76, 96 
Mundy, Peter, 147, 149, 150 
mutton hot pot (sbuanyangrou), 98, 107, 
See also hot pot 

naan (bread), 53, 61 
nahan (platform bed), 104 
Nam Viet (Vietnam), 72 
Nanyue {Nam Viet), 72 
Needham, Joseph, 36 
New Songs at the Jade Terrace (Yutai 
xinyong), 140 
Ngo Quyen, 72 
Nguyen Van Huyen, 69 
Night Revels of Han Xizai (Han Xizai 
yeyantu), 103 
Nixon, Richard, 156, 157 
noodles, 6, 7, 8, 54, 71, 98 
as grain food, 7, 8 
origin, 6 

Notes in the Legume Garden (Shuyuan zaiji), 

nuribashi (lacquered chopsticks), 81 

Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko, 74 

oiwaibashi (ceremonial chopsticks), 125, 126 

Old Tang History (JiuTang shu), 95 

Oliphant, Laurence, 150, 151 

Ono no Imoko, 75, 76, 78, 82 

Opium War, 149 

oracle-bone and bronze inscriptions, 3 1 
oracle-bone inscriptions, 30 
Ota Masako, 24, 158 

pasta complex, 55 
Pearl River, 69, 97 
Pei Shiqing (Hai Seisei), 75 
Pereira, Galeote, 145, 147 
pho (rice vermicelli), 71 
plastic chopsticks, 

porridge, 6, 31, 33, 34, 35, 40, 44, 62, 64 
Post, Emily, 113 



Qianlong, Emperor of Qing dynasty, 149 
Qing dynasty, 24, 105, 107, 148 
Qu Yuan, 70 

rumen (noodle), 7, 114 
Random Notes on the Barges (Tuipeng 
wuyu), 119 

Random Records 0(1604 (Capchin Mallok), 

Records of Ancient Matters (Kojiki), 77, 

79, 80 

Records of Buddhist Temples in Luoyang 
(Luoyang qielanji), 58 
Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji), 37, 
Red River, 69, 72 
Ricci, Matteo, 146, 157 
rice, 8, 28, 50, 58, 64, 65, 69, 73, 87, 97, 99 
as grain food, 36, 37, 38, 58 
different from millet, 30, 38, 100, 168 
its variety, 38, 70, 86, 96, 97 
rice cake, 70, 71 

Rites of Zhou (Zhouli), 26, 27, 37 
Roberts, J. A. G., 144, 161 
ryokuchibashi (two-ended chopsticks), 

83, 126 

Science and Civilization in China, 3 6 

Sen no Rikyu, 82 

serving chopsticks, no, in, 125, 

15s, 156 

serving spoon, 118, 155, 156, 157 

Shafer, Edward H., 65 

Shang dynasty, 3, 17, 18, 28, 33 

shao (spoon or ladle), 19 

Shen Yue, 134 

Shintoism, 81, 125, 131 

Shotoku, Prince, 75 

shu (millet), 30 

Shu Tassei, 96 

Shu Xi, 52, 53, 120 

si (spoon), 19 

Silk Road, 52, 55 

silver chopsticks, 56, 57, 60, 114, 137, 138 
Sima Qian, 37, 41, 42, 46, 48, 69, 72, 120, 

Sima Xiangru, 120, 121 

Song dynasty, 8, 55, 95, 97, 103, 138 

Song Jing, 137 

Song Yingxing, 99 

soup spoon, 8, 118 

spoon, 5, 40, 44, 62, 65, 76, 83, 87, 108, 
114, 127 

as primary eating tool, 5, 40, 66 
compared with chopsticks, 5, 118 
for drinking soup, 8, 118 
for eating porridge, 63 
its relation to chopsticks, 43, 45 
origin, 5, 18, 20 
steaming, 21, 30, 40 
stew, 9, 34, 35, 38, 40, 47, 48, 58, 62, 

69, 70 

stewing, 21, 60 
stir-frying, 60 

Stories to Awaken the World (Xingshi 
hengyan), 99, 105 
su (millet), 30 

table, 102, 103, 105, 106 
table manners, 12, 13, 109, 113, 131 
Tale of the Bamboo Cutter (Taketori 
monogatari), 79 

Tale of the Hollow Tree (Utsubo 
monogatari), 78 

Tang dynasty, 6, 9, 46, 51, 54, 56, 57, 63, 
65> 75: 133: 168 
Tang Su, 108 
Tang Xianzu, 138 
tangbing (noodle), 53, 61 
tangchi (soup spoon), 118 
tea, 58, loi, 145, 167 
The Cambridge World History of Food, 97 
The Chopsticks Diet, 2 
The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking 
of World Order, 67 

The Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves 
(Manydshu), 79 

The Exploitations of the Works of Nature 
(Tiangong kaiwu), 99 
The Pillow Book (Makura no soshi), 78 
The Plum in the Golden Vase (Jinpingmei), 
100, 104 

The Procedures of the Engi Era (Engishiki), 78 

The Raw and the Cooked, 167 

Tomes, Nancy, 117 

toribashi (serving chopsticks), no, in 

Trieu Da, See Zhao Tuo 


adopted by Asians, 2, 3, 5, 168 
as mark of civilization, 3, 5, 10, 1 1, 

167, 168 



utensils (cont.) 
in ancient China, 21 
reason for, 3, 4, 5, 167, 168 

Van Esterik, Penny, 73 
Visser, Margaret, 37 
Voyages and Descriptions, 148 

Wang Chong, 135 
Wang Li, 154, 155 
Wang Lihua, 59, 65 
Wang Mingsheng, 105 
Wang Renxiang, 19 
Wang Saishi, 61 
Wang Shancai, 18 
Wang Su, 58 

waribashi (disposable chopsticks), 159 
Warring States period, 24, 27, 158 
Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan), 104, 141 
wheat, 6, 49, 62, 64, 98, 151 
as grain food, 52, 168 
White, Lynn, i, 67, 68 
wonton, 54, 55 

wooden chopsticks, 14, 15, 23, 56, 68, 
81, 159 

and Shintoism, 8 1 
preferred by the Japanese, 60, 80 
Wu Liande, 156, 157 

Xia dynasty, 24 
Xiang Yu, 48 

xiangzhu (ivory chopsticks), 22 
Xiao Zixian, 139 
xifan (porridge), 63 
Xiongnu, 89, 90 

Xiyu (Western regions), 51, 53, 55 
Xu Jing, 86, 87, 88 
Xu Jingbo, 83 
Xu Ling, 140 

Xu Mengxin, 90 
Xue Lingzhi, 62, 65 
Xun Zi, 23 
Xunzi, 23 

Yan Zhitui, 54 
Yang Xuanzhi, 58 

Yangzi River, 28, 32, 36, 37, 56, 58, 61, 65, 
Yao Weijun, 58 
Yellow River, 36, 89 
yizi (chair), 103 

Yu, a legendary ruler in ancient China, 24 

Yuan dynasty, 91, 98, 106 

Yuan Mei, 14 1 

Yuenan (Vietnam), 72 

Yun Kuk-Hyong, 93, 94, 99, 109, 115 

Zhang Juzheng, 137 
Zhang Liang, 4 1 
Zhang Qian, 5 2 
Zhang Zhongjing, 55 
Zhao Kuangyin, 90 
Zhao Qi, 27 

Zhao Rongguang, 20, 103 
Zhao Tuo (Trieu Da), 72, 89 
Zheng Xuan, 25, 27, 28 
zhou (porridge), 30, 31, 32, 33, 40, 

62, 63 

Zhou Chi, 142 

Zhou dynasty, 18, 22, 25, 26, 30, 36 

Zhou Enlai, 157 

Zhou Yafu, 41, 42, 46, 48 

Zhou, king of Shang dynasty, 22, 136 

zhu (chopsticks), 23, 34, 119, 123 

Zhu Di, 98 

Zhu Yuanzhang, 93, 98, 108 
Zhuo Wenjun, 120, 121 
zongzi (rice cake), 70